Terminal 5, Heathrow. A bank of lifts ferry passengers from the Arrivals lounge down to the Piccadilly line Underground station.
Following signs to the Underground, I turn a corner and four sets of closed lift doors confront me. I am the only person waiting, and since the doors and the lifts shafts are all glass, I can see that there are not, at this time, any lifts at this level. What to do?
Here’s what the designers of this particular bank of lifts want me do: absolutely nothing.
In the interests, one assumes, of simplicity they have removed the lift-call buttons. I look around, scouring the engineered glass and steel for any device that I might conceivably press; after all, that is what you do when using a lift.
Time passes and eventually a lift arrives; but not before a few other hapless travellers come to wait alongside me, all of whom do the same double-take. A small child starts to investigate the plastic mountings that allow a retractable ribbon to be pulled across the doors when a lift is out of service.
“Is this the button?” he wonders aloud to his mother.
Here’s the thing: removing the apparently unnecessary (the button) from the interface of this system (the bank of lifts) had quite the opposite effect than the one intended by the designers — that of simplifying the user’s interaction with it.
I consider myself an educated, intelligent, adaptable fellow, and I can imagine their intent: “Why,” I am guessing they asked themselves while sitting around a large conference table spread with blueprints of the inchoate transport interchange, “do we even need buttons? After all, the lifts just go up and down, and can only take passengers from Arrivals and Departures to the Underground, so why not simply make them automatic?”
But this logic fails to take into account human nature, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of all lifts worldwide have lift-call buttons. I, along with all of my fellow travellers on that day, would have been far more at ease if presented with a ‘redundant’ lift-call button that simply lit up when pressed, and turned off again when a lift arrived. I would not, then, have had to wrestle with my conceptual model of how lifts work, or been slightly unsettled by the notion that there might be a button that I couldn’t find, that the lifts simply weren’t running, or even that these doors, whatever they were, weren’t lifts.
The designers, acknowledging the likelihood of existential angst, had placed a small sign by one set of doors that read: “These lifts are automatic”. But this is a poor excuse for an explanation, not least because a significant proportion of people coming to the lifts might only have English as a second language, or no English at all.
Good design has the ability to reconfigure the complex and render it simple. But simplicity is fragile. The lesson, I think, is that communication is more important than engineering; that expectation is more important than execution; and that, perhaps, the perception of control is more important than control itself.
And that less is not always more.
Illustration: Ceci n’est pas une pipe, by René Magritte.