Convention Vs.Intuitive design

I started reading “Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A Norman and immediate knew that this was a special book. I am reading this after a few not-so-good books and I can see the difference immediately. This book makes me think! I have only read a few pages, but already my mind is thinking of things I never thought of before. 

One of the concepts he explains is “Mental Model“. The author says that as soon as a person sees a set of controls, he makes a set of assumptions as to to how those controls work. If the original designer has made the same assumptions, then we perceive the product/controls as “intuitive”. If, the mental model of the user is different from how the controls actually work, the controls seem too complicated or un-intuitive. Users would have to memorize how controls work which is bad UX(User eXperience).

This got me thinking about the elevator in UB City. What if the controls for the lift were positioned like this –

Which one would you press to go up and which one for down? There is a mismatch between the mental model and the positioning of the switches. Fortunately, the early manufacturers of elevators quickly realised the problem and made the switches vertical.



Now, it is easy, click the up button if you want to go up and down button if you want to go down. Suddenly the interface became intuitive and elevator manufacturers quickly forgot about this issue. 
Over the years, elevators added more and more features, but one of the features that I am interested in is the display of where the elevator is currently. This additional information is very helpful to the people waiting. They get feedback as to where the elevator is and how much time it will take to reach your floor. But, did you notice the problem?
Now, a brand new user( who has never used an elevator before) would look at the display and starts to wonder,  “Should I press down to get the elevator down?” or “Should I press up to go up?”. If I need to press up to go up, then why have they given me the display as to where the elevator is? More than likely the first time user will press down to go up.
Then the user learns about “convention”. All lifts are designed such that you press up to go up and down to go down.
However,these buttons moved from intuitive to convention only on addition of the display which was intended to give feedback to the user on where the elevator currently is. It messed up the mental model of the users and the result is that in several buildings, we see the following instructions explaining the model of the elevator-

 The instructions look extremely funny, especially to an experienced user. So, how would I solve the issue?

<< Answer hidden. Provide your idea in the comments. My idea is provided in the comments too >>
Both purposes solved without any ugly instructions!
This got me thinking, “Is there anything like the elevator buttons in computer world?” Are there any advancement in technologies that are spoiling the user experience?
Although I couldn’t find any examples that are as drastic as the elevator buttons, I did find a couple of things that can be changed
1) Save button –  Most applications still use an image of floppy disk for save. It was very logical 10 – 15 years ago. If I want to save a file, I put it in my floppy disk. An image of floppy disk made the button intuitive. However, I am sure 5 year olds and maybe even some 10 year olds have never seen a floppy disks. When these kids grow up, they would be wondering where the designers got the “blue thingy” for Save button. Of course, we would have trained all the kids not to ask “Stupid Questions”. So, soon the blue square thingy would become “convention” for a save button. 
Either of the two things will happen in the future. UI designers will remain conservative and not change the icon. This will make the save button similar to the Scroll lock key in the keyboard. It will lie there on one corner of the software but no one will use it.
Some one will be brave enough to replace the floppy icon with new technology equivalent – an icon of a USB stick :-).  I hope designers in CDC Software are brave enough to take this step :-)
Can you find any other instances where the UI has changed from intuitive to “Convention” because of technology or feature changes? Do comment


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8 Responses to Convention Vs.Intuitive design

  1. Ashish Iddya

    This is a suggestion by one of my colleagues – Anu A.

    Have the control panel with all the floors on the outside of the lift on every floor. Users would have to just press the floor number to which they have to go. No Confusions!

  2. Ashish Iddya

    My suggestion –
    Keep the display showing where the lift is off. Once a user selects an “up or a down” button then switch on the display showing where the lift is.
    Argument against this solution – “How does it help the second user on the same floor?”

  3. Nice blog Ashish! The elevator problem has troubled me as well, but I haven’t found a good solution (will post here when I find one), though yours looks decent.

    On the save button, if designers were overtly brave, most of them would have changed the ‘square thingy’ floppy icon to a ’round thingy’ CD icon long back, and then some of them would have again changed it to ‘U shaped’ external disc icon, and now few of them would be changing it again to a USB stick icon… and it doesn’t stop here (unless USB stick is the perfect, final, unchangeable storage device).

    So all these different icons for the same action would have completely messed up user’s mental model. At least now we have just one icon (even though most users don’t connect to it). That’s a nice side effect of designers’ Conservative approach. In terms of technology, we live in such a fast changing world, sometimes it’s better to be a little slow. :-)

    • Ashish Iddya

      Thanks Pravin.
      I am not saying that we should move to depict the latest technology. However, whatever we use to depict a save should be intuitive. My point is that slowly, save button will become like the elevator buttons. The usage will be based on “convention” rather than intuition.

  4. Sangeeta Panda

    Ashish, nicely written blog. It made me think. This is what i came up with.

    In the display panel,

    “Go Up” -> Up Icon
    ” Go Down” -> Down Icon
    Next to these icons there should be a display which is generally on the top, showing which floor it is in. Ex – 2 of 18. I have sent you the image what i meant.

  5. My solution to the elevator problem:

    Let the Up and Down buttons be as they are and change the display such that instead of showing the arrow and floor number, it shows the difference between the current floor and the floor where the elevator is (e.g. if the elevator is on 7th floor, on 5th floor it’ll show 2 and on 8th floor it’ll show 1). This way the user gets a visual feedback of when the elevator will arrive (the number will go like 3 ..2 ..1 ..0 “BANG”, like a countdown, consistent with the user’s mental model) and since the display does not show the direction of the elevator but just a number, it will not confuse the first time user while pressing the button. Experienced users can still guess the direction based on whether the number is increasing or decreasing.

    The only side effect: If the elevator is going in the opposite direction, it may not stop at first ‘0’ but rather on the second ‘0’. Like if you press the down button on 8th floor and and elevator is currently on 6th floor, going up; the the numbers will go like 2 ..1 ..0 ..1 ..2 ..1 ..0 “BANG”.

  6. Sharad

    Why not have a single button ! And when the lift door opens – display whether its going down or up
    If its in the direction intended – the person walks in – other wise he waits for the next one.
    If the previous solution has too much latency involved – one more solution would be to change the icon to add a person and arrow

  7. Pingback: Design of everyday things in America | Management Concepts & Book Summaries

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