Posts Tagged 'safety'

Ignite 7: The Coming Revolution in Highway Communication

I promised I would have a more detailed discussion on my proposal to redesign vehicle signals. A five-minute presentation is great, but isn’t quite enough to really cover the details.

The current signal layout has stop lights, reverse lights and turn signals, which are also used as hazard lights. These are the only lights dedicated to signaling a driver’s intentions. We have parking lights and headlights too, but they don’t count. Seriously, they’re not signals.

What’s my problem with this setup? Let’s go over all the lights one at a time.

Turn signals

Turn signals are used to indicate all sideways movement. But there isn’t just one way to move sideways. For one, we change lanes quite often. In many cases, where it’s possible to change lanes or make a turn, it’s difficult to show a driver’s intentions.

Not all intersections are your standard four-way situation. Many have multiple roads in a given direction, and in those cases, it’s common for one lane to lead into two different turns. Also, on highways where two exits split off from the same place, it’s difficult knowing if a driver is taking the more gradual exit or making the sharper turn.

U-turns aren’t legal in all states, but even in those states there are places where they are explicitly allowed. And even where they aren’t, they still happen. Many drivers preparing for a u-turn will use a blinker, then start turning in the opposite direction to allow room to complete the turn. This confuses other drivers, but a dedicated u-turn light would clear up a lot of that confusion.

My idea to revamp the turn signal would look a little like this. To control these lights, we’d have a slight change to the controls we use today: The lane change signal would be activated by moving the blinker switch up or down, without clicking. Releasing the switch would turn the blinker off. Clicking the switch once would turn the soft turn signal on, and a second click activates the hard turn light. Once either direction is blinking, pulling on the switch (which usually toggles the brights with the current setup) turns on the u-turn signal. No matter what signal is on, pushing the switch will always return it to the center, disabling all turn signals.

Brake lights

It doesn’t seem too crazy to expect brake lights to respond to a driver slamming on the brakes, and inform other drivers that the car is decelerating faster than normal.

An outer ring could flash rapidly around the solid standard brake light when the system detects the car slowing down faster than what would be considered normal. I imagine there’d be some testing to determine what that rate would be. Also, if the driver slams on the brakes but the car doesn’t slow down as fast, maybe with faulty brake lines or ice on the road, the outer ring should still flash, to warn others that something isn’t right.

Hazard lights

It bothers me that cars still use the same lights for hazards that they do for turn signals. It seems irresponsible for a manufacturer to limit a driver’s ability to signal a lane change or turn while also signaling that there’s something wrong with the car.

Also, hazards are used in a wide variety of situations, from flat tires to overheated engines to simply driving slower than others up a steep incline. Hazards are generally thought to signal serious problems, so drivers are apprehensive about using them for more mild situations, such as driving a bit slower to save gas or driving in an unfamiliar area.

Like the two-part stop light, these lights would have a mild hazard mode and a severe hazard mode. Maybe drivers would be more willing to use them in less extreme cases if both modes were available.

It only seems natural to make the hazard signal in the shape of a triangle, since that symbol is used to illustrate dangerous situations on the road already. Of course the light should be red, like most hazard triangles and reflectors used to signal accidents and construction zones.

Controlling the dual hazard lights could use a switch much like the one used to control the fan on a kitchen stove: left to mild hazards, right for serious hazards, center to tun both off. Or a button shaped like the hazard symbol, where drivers can push the inner or outer triangles, and the lights would turn on accordingly.

The lights on an actual car don’t need to be nearly this big. That’s one thing many modern automobile manufacturers don’t seem to understand about LEDs. They’re much brighter and clearer, and a light made of LEDs is much more painful to look at than a traditional bulb light of the same size. A simple row of lights will work for the turn signals, and animating the signals would be even more effective.

The horn

This isn’t really in the scope of my main idea, but I do like the idea of a less aggressive horn, used when a driver wants to get someone’s attention when there is no immediate danger. First of all, it must be easier to engage the aggressive horn, since it must be used in emergencies. But a smaller button could activate what I called the Happy Horn in my presentation, which fades in and rises a bit in pitch, so it isn’t as surprising.

I’m very much against using the Angry Horn while arming and disarming car alarms. They’re typically used in parking lots where people are walking around, and to those people, it sounds like somebody is honking at them. Also irresponsible. I’m not a fan of superfluous government regulations, but I’d support one that bans horns used in this case.

Straight ahead signal

An idea I had when brainstorming for this presentation was a straight ahead signal. Why would this be a good idea? There are instances where it would be nice to let others know when I am going straight, and I just know they’re wondering if I’m just forgetting to signal a turn. A straight ahead signal would clear up that confusion, but to be effective, drivers would have to get in the habit of using the signal at every stop and every scenario where turning is an option. The straight ahead light would become the default signal, equivalent to using no signal, and would either be left on all the time or never used. I just don’t see this signal helping things, even though three of the four possible directions–left, right and backward–have their own dedicated signals.

Can we change?

This is all a pretty big change. Not just in the design and controls of the signals, but in the way we use them and expect others to do the same, in a world where half the drivers don’t already use the blinkers they’ve got.

I mention in the presentation that people have changed their recycling habits over time, which called for a change in the way garbage companies handled and dealt with the trash. This was a successful shift brought on by a concern for the environment. A concern for safety and efficient communication might be able to do the same for our car signals.

People are willing to invest in better systems when they feel the investment is worth it. We’ll pay money for a newer technology, like the jump from VHS to DVD, and spend the time learning to use a new computer application, as long as we think the time and money put into it will pay off.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. I would like to add some ideas to this proposal, but after working on the slides and narrowing my words down to 15-second chunks and then re-typing it for this blog post, I’m a bit burnt out on the whole thing. I want a milkshake.

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28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXII

Dangerous products should be harder to engage and easier to stop.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old girl died after being trapped inside a front-loading washing machine which was turned on by her 15-month-old brother. The event stirred up a good deal of discussion involving the design and usability of certain washing machines in households with children.

Childproofing a home is never easy, and often quite expensive. Entire aisles of safety mechanisms are often available at retail stores in an attempt to guard children against numerous potential dangers: electrical outlets, drawers containing unsafe products, closet doors, sharp edges, hard surfaces and choking hazards, to name a few. As soon as a family expects its first child, it quickly becomes apparent just what a death trap some homes can be.

It’s impossible to remove every hazardous element from a child’s life, and attempting to do so only prolongs the encounter for a later time. When dealing with products and environments that can pose a threat to a child’s safety, it’s good to take advantage of the one safety mechanism built into all children: their size. Kids unable to figure out dangerous equipment start out with a very limited reach, and this should be utilized when designing products that can’t be simply kept away from children, such as washing machines.

According to news reports, the controls to the washing machine in question (a Kenmore 417 front load washer) are a mere twenty inches off the floor–well within the reach of a small child–and can be engaged easily. In top loading washers, the controls are usually set behind the door, and require a taller operator with an extended arm to start. With the advent of front loading machines, perhaps because clothes can now be folded or piled on top of the machine, keeping the controls where they were would have seemed like a bad idea, as access to the buttons might be blocked with no need to keep the top of the machine clear.

Years ago, a few medicine companies began advertising bottles that were easier to open, responding to elderly users having difficulties opening their medicine containers. Most childproof bottles feature caps which must be squeezed and forced open, or arrows which have to line up with one another before the cap will pop off. Both took considerable strength, and the arrows were small and hard to notice, making them harder for children to figure out. Obviously, these safety features cause problems for older users, who often have problems with both the strength and eyesight needed to open the bottles. To solve this problem, the new bottles have a long tab sticking up from their cap, making them easier to grasp, but still take a bit of strength to twist off. On these bottles, instead of the standard “Keep out of reach of children” warning, the label clearly states not to allow the bottle in any household with children–which is wonderful for older users, who are typically beyond the stage of having to worry about kids running around their homes.

The problem with this new style of washing machine isn’t only where the controls are placed, but the type of controls they use. As a user, I never really liked the push-twist-pull dial used to select the type of fabric and duration of the wash. Because the dial can only spin clockwise (a limitation I’ve never understood but have found on every dial I’ve ever tried), passing the desired setting means having to turn the thing around another rotation, and it isn’t always easy to know if the arrow is right on the correct setting or one click behind it. I’m always a bit uneasy about advancing an extra click when trying to select my setting, and because I’ve always used the exact same setting with all of my clothes, the fact that I have to turn the dial with every load does seem a bit pointless.

So the dial isn’t necessary, but eliminating it also gets rid of a helpful safety feature. How can a button-driven menu incorporate an equally effective feature? One idea could be to require two buttons, placed far enough apart to require two hands, to be pressed simultaneously. This will make it almost impossible to activate the machine accidentally, and still offer a simple way to get the machine started. Because the contents of the machine move around during the cycle, a release lever or button inside the machine isn’t possible, but in the interest of preventing another accident, unlikely as this sort may be, it would be possible to install a small microphone that halts the cycle if a loud noise, such as a scream, is detected when the tub begins filling with water.

Cases like these make us realize how important it is to analyze every possibility regarding household objects, products and situations, and at least try to prevent accidents before they occur. I wouldn’t say a recall is necessary on washing machines like this, but users need to understand the ease with which they can be engaged, and make the controls harder to reach by keeping the machines elevated or their rooms locked if there are children about. Like with the medicine bottles, manufacturers of these machines should make sure customers are warned of their inherent shortcomings as equipment easily accessible to children, by including printed warnings on boxes and in manuals that come with the products. When accidents like this happen, there is often no one branch of the user experience process the place the blame, as all parties–design, development, sales and even the user–may all have contributed to the unsafe conditions which led to the accident. That’s why it’s important to consider every step of the process when working to prevent future incidents.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XVIII

Drunk people are users too.

Products deemed to be potentially dangerous to the user or the surrounding environment, such as vehicles, weapons and chemicals, are tested under more strenuous conditions and held to higher engineering standards to ensure a level of personal and public safety. Cars are built with a large number of features meant only as a last resort to save lives during an accident, while household products which can’t have safety mechanisms added–bleach, for example–can only be fitted with safety switches and warning messages on their labels; of course, once the bleach has left the bottle, the label can’t follow it to warn of the dangers of its use.

Some cars are equipped with breathalysers, usually issued after a driver has already been caught inebriated behind the wheel, that won’t allow ignition unless the driver’s alcohol content is below the legal limit. Unlike seat belt, airbags and engine mounts that release the engine rather than crush passengers under their weight, the breathalyser is a precaution meant to prevent a tragedy from happening in the first place, much like the safety switch on a pistol. These all seem like common sense today, but not so long ago they were mere suggestions to the manufacturers.

Architecture is another field of design where safety is a primary concern–emergency elevators, backup stairways and fire escapes are all mandatory additions to large buildings and public spaces. But one place where safety is overlooked, sometimes to an obvious degree, is in the interior design that comes after the architects have finished their job.

Interaction design plays a major role in interiors, and in many cases, it seems, safety concerns are overlooked in the interest of artistic value. In this example, I have to again draw from my experiences at The Triple Door in Seattle. It’s not because I didn’t like it there, but because it seems the designers felt like product testing just doesn’t apply to interiors or architecture, which is unfortunate.

The upper level of the establishment is an upscale bar, complete with a giant fish tank, floor-mounted lighting and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, unmarked restrooms. There is a row of booths for private dining along one side of the bar, and surrounding these booths is a wall about chest high and perhaps five inches thick. The wall is topped with a smooth black finish, and happens to be the proper height on which to rest one’s drink while mingling, dancing, or searching for the restrooms.

In fact, the wall seems like it was meant to hold drinks. And why wouldn’t it? No sense letting that space go to waste. The only problem is that the smooth, slick finish is set at an angle–maybe 10 degrees–and does a really good job of holding a glass full of liquid just long enough to give the illusion that everything’s under control. After picking up the shattered remnants of one too many pint glasses to qualify as random user error, I discovered the angle of the wall wasn’t flat, and tested my own glass on its surface. The less liquid in the glass, the longer it would stay–an empty pint glass generally stayed indefinitely–but a full pint fell off within a couple seconds. A half-full glass was too sporadic to come to any conclusions, but more often than not, it would eventually fall in the time it would take most people to remove their coat.

And that’s considering the people weren’t already hindered by the effects of alcohol. Of course, I was sober when I did these tests–the glass I used was filled with root beer–but this being a bar, the designers should have taken into consideration the altered state of a drinker–not just your average tipsy patron, but the Friday night college student with no kids and no responsibilities. If there is a law in effect disallowing a bartender from serving outwardly drunk customers, establishments like this should put forth the effort to lessen the possibility for accidents and injuries that are amplified when alcohol is introduced. Drunkenness may be considered a corner case from an engineering perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s less common, just less anticipated in most situations.

Interior interaction seems to fall through the cracks between the architectural and decorative stages, almost as if all safety concerns are expected to have been solved by the architects who are long gone before the next wave of designers step in. But to dismiss the safety aspects of any facet of design is to invite more hazardous situations–especially when a user’s behaviors might be altered by a factor such as alcohol. I’d go so far as to say it would be more responsible for a team of designers to hire drunk product testers to examine new interiors and user experiences at various degrees of inebriation. I’m sure there are people who would volunteer for just such a position.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XV

Drivers need a lot of time to make decisions.

A few years ago, the the city of Seattle decided to renovate its underground transit tunnels, a process which would take at least two years, during which the tunnels had to be shut down, re-routing all bus lines to alternate above-ground routes.

Not surprisingly, the long-term detour packed the downtown area’s already stuffy roads with more buses than city planners originally had in mind. To alleviate the sudden wave of these giant wheeled monsters, certain city blocks were now off-limits to all personal vehicles during peak hours–6am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm on weekdays.

This was a wonderful solution for the majority of traffic concerns at a time when narrow, busy roads suddenly doubled in traffic at the busiest times of the day. However, the implementation of the signs warning drivers when the roads were and weren’t available, along with the way the system was enforced, created an entirely new problem.

White backlit boxes, the same kind used to inform drivers which lanes can turn left and whether U-turns are acceptable in an intersection, were hung near the traffic lights at every block, stating that the roads were closed to private traffic during peak hours, which were listed clearly on each sign. To anyone not a frequent traveler of these downtown blocks, these small, nondescript signs were all drivers had to determine when and where they were allowed to drive.

A central hub of transit, connecting several major freeways and less common but equally important inner-city highways, Seattle has dealt with a similar problem before, on a much larger scale, with great success–a triumph that would suggest the same city could pull it off on this smaller scale with the same results.

I’m talking about the expressways which help motorists living outside of town travel to and from work each day. These expressways are only large enough to allow one direction of traffic at a time, and are open to inbound cars in the morning and outward cars at night.

How do drivers know when taking the expressway won’t lead them head-on into a vehicle going the other way? A series of arms, much like those found at tollbooths and drawbridges, close off entrances when it’s not safe to enter. This obviously can’t be implemented with the downtown traffic, as the arms would be blocking the buses from taking the roads as well, but another effective signal is used on the expressways, and would have greatly improved the conditions of the downtown detour routes: big neon signs placed well before the closed-off street, with the words “EXPRESSWAY CLOSED” lit up only when the statement was true, made for an unmistakable signal that the motorist’s options were limited long before actually reaching the point in question.

Why the city didn’t use this tactic downtown is beyond me. As it was, unprepared drivers would have to notice these signs, legible no more than half a block away, register their meaning, and figure out whether the streets were open or a sudden turn onto a different street was in order. This required drivers to find a clock (usually there’s one somewhere on the instrument panel or stereo, if it’s working and properly set), and figure out whether the streets were open or closed. Essentially, drivers were forced to do math while behind the wheel. Drivers should never be expected to handle numbers while driving, regardless of how simple it seems under other circumstances.

On top of that, some perpendicular streets were one-way, forcing last-minute lane changes in order to exit the closed streets.

If that wasn’t enough (and believe me, it was), police were dispatched to each one of these streets during peak hours to issue rather hefty tickets to those who broke this rule, no doubt earning a good deal off those unfortunate drivers caught off guard by the city’s lack of sufficient signs. And not only did they nab motorists, but pedestrians now had more to worry about than passing cars: police waiting to cite drivers also began ticketing jaywalkers much more frequently than before.

Now that the renovations are complete, the mess above ground should be more or less cleared up. The city has decided to keep one street closed to cars during these hours, and I hope the signage has improved. I’ll see when I visit Seattle next week.

The last thing a driver should be expected to do is make sudden decisions with little warning ahead of time. Washington state already outlawed talk on mobile phones while driving, based on the understood limitations of the human attention span; Seattle had no reason to drop the ball on this one. I might go so far as to suggest the entire situation was planned to increase ticket revenue, or at least wasn’t fixed because of the money it pulled in. Nevertheless, in the interest of safety and clarification, drivers should always be given ample time to make decisions, and a simple Yes or No is much more effective than making drivers do the work on their own.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part IX

Door handles should look like door handles.

I used to work at a bar and music venue in Seattle called The Triple Door. I only mention the name here because the three doors after which the place is named have some pretty obvious design flaws–dangerously obvious–and I urge anyone interested in interaction to visit and take a look at the doors in question.

After a short flight of steps down to the lower level, the first obstruction is a set of three large, black doors, which remain closed and locked to keep out those who haven’t been admitted to the theater area. Employees, armed with magnetic keys, always open one of these three doors for the guest, which only further adds to the big problem later on.

Once past the first door, the guest is in a small room with three more doors in front and a large, floor-to-ceiling window to the right, kept impeccably clean. The lights in this room are kept low, and the doors painted black, so not much is visible save for the performance through the window.

The main problem here is the design of the door handles: long, skinny poles connected to the side of each door, also painted black, with no markings to imply their affordance as door handles. Furthermore, as the doors must be pulled to open them, the hinges are on the inside–large, bulky, almost handle-shaped hinges, silver in color, to set them apart from everything else in the room. What’s more, the hinges are placed at the same height one would expect a door handle to be. So guests would frequently attempt to pull or twist these large hinges, obviously to no avail.

Because the first door had been opened for them by an employee, customers would have no idea how these doors should function. Pushing on them does no good, as they open in the other direction. Every night I worked there, frustrated customers would come back through the first set of doors (which do open outward, and can easily be pushed open) and ask for assistance, expressing embarrassment or claiming we forgot to unlock the second set of doors (which have no locks).

Another scenario, which I unfortunately witnessed several times in my short time there, was customers assuming the squeaky clean, floor-to-ceiling pane of glass was merely a walkway–it does face the dining area and theater after all–and would run face-first into the window, often causing bruises, fat lips and, at least once, a pretty big gash on a guest’s forehead.

The problem with the door handles in this cramped, nearly unlit space could be easily fixed, if the poles were fashioned to resemble handles. I made the suggestion of painting thin white lines on the poles, one above and one below where the average hand would reach for a door handle. This would easily imply the affordance of a pullable object. Nobody went for it, which is understandable. I wasn’t there to change anything, just greet guests and show them their seats.

I also suggested putting a vinyl sticker on the window–maybe the restaurant’s logo or a dinner menu–to make it clear just how solid this large piece of glass was. Nothing changed during my time there, but one day I found they’d put an event calendar in the window. I hope no more injuries had to happen to spur the change, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Good design turns bad pretty fast when aesthetics intrude on functionality. This establishment was designed with a certain look and feel that sets it apart from all others in Seattle, but at a cost. Along with the door issue, there were no signs pointing guests toward the restrooms–I guess they thought signs detract from the beauty of a bar with a fish tank and mood lighting–and employees must constantly point out what should be obvious to everyone in the room.

During my time there, nobody else seemed to like my suggestions–the guests were more often than not ridiculed for being too drunk or stupid to operate a simple door or find the restroom. No matter how much I explained the problems everyone knew about, how they occurred or how easily they could be fixed, I just wasn’t in the position to be listened to. Aesthetics were the first and foremost priority, and it takes a lot to spur change in such an established system, especially when design flaws instantly become labeled as human error–which is at once overestimating your market’s understanding of the system and underestimating their intelligence.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VI

Red and green = stop and go. Red and blue = hot and cold.

Colors signify a variety of warnings in different cultures. Most commonly, in a majority of the world’s countries, red and blue are assigned respectively to hot and cold faucet handles. This color coding system is quite important, as an unexpected blast of hot water can do some damage.

Red and green, when used side by side, distinguish between two entirely different ideas. Obviously they’re used as traffic signals, but also on appliances to warn when a lock is open or closed, when a user can safely activate, dismantle or perform other operations on a piece of equipment.

I used an electric coffee pot every morning while working in Japan. It quickly heated water to boiling temperature, and had a pump button on top for dispensing the scalding liquid. A sliding lever near the button closed and opened the spigot, signaling its current state with one of two colored dots: red or blue.

I had assumed the blue dot meant the water was cold, and the red meant it was time for coffee (or tea, being in Japan and all). One day I went into the office hoping for a cup, found the blue dot showing, and decided to wait a while. An hour went by, and still no red dot. As I was waiting, a coworker came in, filled her cup with piping hot water, steam flowing from her mug and everything, and walked off. Confused, I took a look at the dot. Still blue! How hot did it have to be to register as hot?

As I’m now aware, temperature had nothing to do with it. The colors corresponded to whether the button could be pressed or not. My coworker had simply opened the spigot, poured her water, and closed it again before leaving the room, further contributing to my confusion.

Of course I was in a different country, but considering the similarities between American and Japan, especially regarding our technology and information systems, this oversight doesn’t make any sense to me. Using blue to signal a closed spigot on a heater that brings water to a fast boil, when users can easily read it as containing cold water,  is dangerous and irresponsible. Designers need to understand instinctual user responses to simple color combinations such as these before releasing a product like this on the public.

Gotta Love Japan

It’s not hard to find a few flaws in most traffic systems. I’ll go over the blindingly obvious problem with downtown Seattle’s business-hours ticket traps later, but this one’s screaming out to be fixed. Yet, in typical Japanese business fashion, nobody I talked to seemed to have the authority to do anything about it.

This is the driveway into (out of?) the biggest mall in my town. To be fair, there has been construction going on, and they’re currently expanding their parking lot, so I hope they’ll be repainting the arrows as well.

Normally, when directing something as bulky and potentially child-crushing as a neverending string of automobiles, you’d think clarity would be a priority. Not so, apparently.

Here’s a different driveway from (to?) the same mall, just to be sure we’re not dealing with an isolated case:

There are Do Not Enter signs posted on the street side of these exits, but no sign to assure those looking to exit that they’re on the right track.

I sure hope these get taken care of soon. It’s hard to imagine such a hazard going either unnoticed or simply ignored. I’d buy some black paint and do it myself if they sold any in this town–and if I thought it wouldn’t get me arrested.