Blinding flashes of the obvious

Challenge yourself to spend a day with those who use your designs.

09/21/2011


We all get used to inconveniences that don’t need to be there. As engineers, though, it’s your responsibility to design things that are easy to use and understand. How can you do that on a regular basis, practiced so it’s as much a part of you as breathing? The purpose of this article is to provoke your thinking so that becomes the case.

Having flown more than 2 million miles, I’ve repeatedly encountered the inconvenience of airplane bathroom faucets that make it so hard to wash your hands. One of the major manufacturer’s designs makes you hold down the lever with one hand to rinse your other hand between that little space under the water flow. To be considerate, you rinse the soap bubbles off the sink so they’re not there for the next person. But often, the drain is in a closed position so you’re holding that down while simultaneously pushing the water lever and collecting water in your other hand to rinse the sink.

Clearly there are bigger issues in our world. But why are semifunctional bathroom sinks in airplanes tolerated?

The point of this musing is that we’re all guilty to some degree of missing key points in what we do. Blinding flashes of the obvious:

  • A university library built on a landfill that started to sink once the books were brought in because the books’ dead weight hadn’t been included in the calculations.
  • Red lighted exit signs placed high up on corridor walls, where smoke rises and quickly covers them, instead of being placed at floor level, where people would be crawling in a smoke-filled hall.

Why do we miss these blinding flashes of the obvious? There’s no single answer, but listening closely to customers and, more importantly, putting yourself in their shoes to experience how they use products and services, helps.

A challenge to you: Spend a day with whoever is the recipient of what you do in your job. It could be the person you sit next to; it could be an outside customer. One day in the average 250-day work year is 0.4% of a year. Surely that small time investment will pay multiple dividends for you both. As American Indian culture so wisely puts it, “Walk a mile in their moccasins.” Observe everyone, everywhere, what they do, and how they do it. Record the blinding flashes that you see and great designs in which the designer clearly “got it.” It’ll sharpen your eye to be innately aware of good design.

Spend as much time as possible with the end users of whatever it is that you do so that you’re not just looking at what you design, but at the whole value chain and what is being provided by all players. It will give you a true sense of the real value from the end user’s perspective and may be the best indicator of who in that value chain will survive, long-term. You may be able to design in the efficiencies that shrink that value chain and provide more value to the end user as a result.

Through those experiences, learn to ask questions like: Why is there even a drain stopper? Who would actually fill an airplane bathroom sink with water and use it? Why not have a spout in the middle of a bowl with room to actually rinse your hands, with no drain stopper and timed water flow to better conserve it?

John Suzukida, PE, Minneapolis

The next time you’ve swiped your credit card at the store and are trying to sign your name, but you inadvertently end the transaction before you’re done signing because the keypad is inconveniently located where your hand rests—think of that blinding flash of the obvious as a reminder for you to not fall into the same trap.

Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on energy efficiency, product-to-solutions transitions, and strategy. He has facilitated meetings for the West Coast Zero Net Energy Coordinating Council, Daikin, Danfoss, and the National Conference on Building Commissioning, and has authored articles for industry publications. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.