Bad Functional Design

My favorite example is found in certain DVDs. Most have the familiar center that is pushed in to “loosen” the DVD, and finger indentations, for lack of a better term, around the edges where you can slide a finger under and pull out the DVD. However, some have a raised outer edge around the circumference of the DVD which prevents such sliding action, thus rendering the indentations virtually useless. Why? And what is your favorite example?

You may be interested in the classic work on the subject: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.

Well, the one that annoys the bejeezus outta me every single day is the ashtray in my Ford Ranger that resides directly in back of the stick shift. You can’t use the ashtray if you’re in 1st or 3rd gear. I realize this doesn’t mean a hill of beans to the non-smokers, but it bugs me to no end.

The wrapping around CDs.

Similar to Kalhoun’s: on my Mazda 626, the drink holder backs right up against the ashtray/lighter, and the doors for each need to open into the same space. That means that you have a choice: You can either have a drink, or you can use the lighter (I don’t smoke, but I use it for phone chargers and such), but not both at once.

Another automotive one is with my old car, a Dodge Shadow, that had the middle brake light mounted into the trunk lid. If you closed the trunk with anything more than minimal force, the bulb would break. Eventually, I stopped replacing it except for right before I took the car to be inspected.

Another good book on the subject is David Gelertner’s Machine Beauty.

I’ve had a few cars with a vent right above the ashtray. My smoking passenger would reach for the ashtray, only to get a shower of sparks up his sleeve.

MY favorite example of bad design is at the Austin airport. It’s a relatively new airport and everything is sleek and designy looking. (It was designed by the former Dean of the Univ. of Texas School of Architecture, Richard Speck) In the bathrooms, the paper towel holders a tucked discreetly behind the mirrors (so you have to reach below the mirror which stops a few inches above the countertops) making for a sleek, modern feel. So discretely tucked are the towels, no one can find the freaking things. So within weeks of the airport opening, they were forced to tape big Xeroxed signs to the mirrors that indicated the locations of the paper towels. Now they’ve resorted to leaving stacks of paper towels on the counter and installed those big, ugly, plastic dispensers. So much for “useful” design…

(The ironic thing is I had a class taught by Dean Speck where he emphasized the need for design to be useful…)

(And I second the suggestion for The Design of Everyday Things. All of Donald Norman’s books are fascinating.)

I was thinking of that very book and the “Teakettle for Masochists” gracing the book’s cover. I’ve also got his Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles

One of my “things” that got over-complicated is the microwave oven. When they first came out, they were dead simple. There was: a dial - turn the dial to the desired cooking time, a pair of adjacent buttons - press “HIGH” or “LOW” for cooking power. Most people just left this set at HIGH. Finally, a big “START” button. The basic operation was <twist knob to desired time><press start>

What do we have now? Buttons! Rows of buttons! Grids of buttons! You want to zap a dish of leftovers for three minutes. Do you press 3-0-0-start? Probably not. My last microwave was <cook time> 3-0-0 <power> <high> <start>. And, if the clock wasn’t set, it would refuse to even think about cooking. My current one is the opposite: <cook high><minute><minute><minute><start>. (11:30 minutes would enter as <ten minutes><minute><15 seconds><15 seconds>) At least they rolled “cook” and “high” into one button along with things like “cook low” “defrost” “beverage” “popcorn” and “dinner plate” - presumably to re-heat a plate of food. But if you want 20 seconds, you’re out of luck.
The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) ticket machines have been horridly designed through the years as well. One that came out about five years ago had two numeric keypads, five slots and a sprinkling of buttons amid two LCD displays. Walk up to one with desires of buying a $10 train ticket - press <BART> ticket type, press <CASH> press <1><0><.><0><0> press <OK> <insert money><receive ticket> Now, why couldn’t it just be insert $10 bill, press <BART> and receive ticket?

Oh, and all those slots? There was a slot for currency, a slot for coins, a slot to insert tickets to add fare value to them and receive the upgraded ticket from, a slot to receive the entirely new tickets and finally, a slot for ATM / credit cards. Two keypads and two displays? One set was to enter the desired ticket value on, and the other was for you ATM card PIN. Why couldn’t they be on the same?

Ooh, I got one.

Why is it in some public restroom stalls, there’s no place to put your things when you empty your pockets? The toilet paper dispenser, on which you’d like to put your stuff, has a sloping top! Only by carefully putting a leather wallet on it, and crowding your change and other possessions on top of said wallet, can you prevent them from falling to the floor.

I can only imagine that some nitwit decided that a sloping top was more esthetically pleasing than a nice, practical boxy one with a flat top.

As for airports, I suppose you couldn’t call this a design feature; it’s more of a procedure that bugs me despite its effectiveness. It used to be that when you went to pick somebody up you could go out to the gates and wait for the person. Now I’m kind of an airplane buff, so I’d get a kick out of walking around the councourse and spotting the different models currently on the tarmac. And I could stop in one of the bars and have a quick one. But now you can’t get anywhere near the concourse unless you’re travelling yourself. Instead, you have to wait for your party in a dingy baggage collection area. No bars. No restaurants or shops, other than a meager snack stand.

All very practical in the interest of reducing terminal crowding and furthering security, but I still don’t like it.

I believe the rounded/sloping surfaces in public (and nightclub) bathrooms are put there deliberately to thwart coke snorting. Although you would have to pay me good money to suck anything that had been in contact with any surface whatsoever in a public bathroom up my schnozz.

How about those point-of-sale keypads for handling credit/debit card purchases?

Every single one is different. Some start by asking to choose English/Spanish. Others prompt for Credit/Debit. Still others interpret a “cancel” at PIN time as meaning Credit.
The card orientiation is always different from the last one you encountered. It frustrates me that these devices can easily make a technically astute fellow such as myself feel like a bozo.

I have one usability recommendation for the manufacturers: Spend a dollar extra on a second magnetic head facing the opposite direction in the swiper. Really. You could pass the cost on and likely sell more units by advertising “Goof Proof” card swipers – think about it: it wouldn’t matter which side the silly stripe was on, it would swipe correctly.

Following the same line of thought, if I were manufacturing an expensive machine for a very-high-throughput application such as subway cards, I would put four magnetic heads inside the card slot. That way, users could feed their card in any which way and it would still work.

Oh and about those sloping surfaces, I wouldn’t attribute their design to such sinister forces – they are likely made that way so that folks can’t leave stuff on them (e.g. miscellaneous trash, empty cigarette packs, used toilet paper, feminine products, etc.).

But wouldn’t the sort of person who’d leave trash and used toilet paper behind on top of a TP dispenser just leave it on the floor otherwise?

The best example of poor design that I can think of is the design of some sets of sliding glass display doors, which have ground fingerholds at the end of each door. In principle, one slides open whichever panel one wishes, and then slides it shut again. Unfortunately, in a poorly designed set, one can slide the wrong door shut, covering up the fingerhold on the other door. The next time it needs to be opened, you have to juggle the doors back and forth to access the side you want.

Boy, that’s hard to describe without pictures.

To recompense: For a whole bunch of examples of poor functional design, check out Michael Darnell’s Bad Designs Web page.

We once had a doorbell that rang when nobody was there, and didn’t ring when somebody was.

I mean, you really only ask two things of your doorbell (ie ring sometimes, refrain from ringing at others). And this doorbell couldn’t do either. But that may not have been a design flaw, actually.

One thing that bugs me is pull-type handles on both sides of glass doors. Now, if you can pull the door open from either side, that’s fine. But most of the time I see this used on doors which must be pushed from one side. The push side should have a plate or wide flat surface on the door instead. Always.

You walk into the public toilet stall, twist the lock closed, and then hang your purse on the conviniently supplied hook…
which is right above the lock.

So the purse keeps bumping into the lock and unlocking the stall, letting the door swing open while you’re not really in a position to fix the problem quickly and you end up attempting to use the bathroom while holding the door closed with your feet. (or just dumping the purse on the floor.) And just putting the hook on the side of the stall (which would be just as easy) would have solved the problem.

I’m sure they’re just stumped as all get-out to find that a flat surface was NEVER part and parcel to the process of snorting coke.

I find the design of most microwave control panels especially ludicrous because I own a 15 year old combination microwave/oven/broiler-toaster unit. It’s inherently more complicated than a standard microwave, since it has three separate functional modes - but an 8 year old child could use it without having to read a single instruction booklet! There’s not a touchkey in sight - the controls are three dials. The top dial selects the function: microwave, oven, or toaster-broiler. The middle dial sets the oven temperature (and is labeled in degrees F, like a standard US oven dial). The bottom dial is the on-off switch and is also a timer (goes from one minute to 60 minutes). Operation of the unit is intuitive: pick the mode, set the temperature if using the oven or broiler features, then put the food in and start the timer. Easy!

Why the fascination among appliance makers with elaborate display panels and touchkeys, when so often a simple dial does the job better? Who wants to have to haul out an instruction booklet just to microwave some leftovers?

I’m having trouble picturing why your purse would be moving so much after you had hung it up and left it alone. However, those hooks on the doors (at least in the guy’s restrooms) I’ve always assumed were for hanging coats, etc. . .I’ve always thought it would be way too easy for somebody to just reach over the top of the door and grab your stuff off the hook, and you’d hardly be in a position to do anything about it.

One of the ones that bugs me most is the current convention in microwaves to have the defrost function require entering the weight of the item, rather than the time you want it to run. Sorry, but softening up pound of ice cream does not require the same amount of time as defrosting a pound of chicken, and warming up a quart of frozen soup is going to be different than either of them. And, no, thank you, I don’t want to stop halfway through the cycle and turn my soup over.

My early 80’s GE may be wimpy, but it lets me make my own decisions.