On the right is a picture of an elevator at the VTA Light Rail station at the Great Mall, in Milpitas, California. It allows people with limited mobility, or those traveling with bicycles, to travel between the station and the sidewalk below. You might expect that an elevator with only two stops would have a relatively simple user interface. After all, as a user, you only want to go from the stop where you boarded to the other stop. One button should suffice. But, no – the user experience is painfully, needlessly complicated, by imbedding control surfaces and indicators for the most common use cases in amongst the more rare use cases.
Discoverable With Difficulty
As you can see, the control panel is festooned with buttons, indicators, key-operated switches, and labels. The prominent red button is for emergency calls; if you press it by mistake, you need to somehow find and press the Call Cancel button in the upper right, in a different control surface group. Directly beneath the emergency intercom button are two buttons, with white on black labels to the left, “P” and “*S. “ Squinting at the engraved label above the Braille instructions to the right of each button, you will realize that “P” stands for “Platform” (not “Parking”) and the starred “S” stands for “Street Level.” It’s not clear why the platform doesn’t merit a star.
Side-by-side and below the starred street level button are buttons to Open and Close the door; immediately below the Open button is an Alarm button. To the right of the Alarm button is a key switch, to lock the doors. Below this is a recessed section with eight more key switches, an indicator lamp, and a 110 VAC duplex outlet. At the top is another key switch, labeled fire service, an indicator, and a jack for a Fireman’s Phone. No doubt, each of these controls and features is required by law, safety regulations, elevator design convention, and the manufacturer. They just aren’t particularly beneficial to members of the traveling public, who actually use this elevator.
Needless Complexity Impedes Value Realization
If you board the elevator at the platform level, nothing useful happens until you figure out that you need to press the starred “S” button. However, you have two different ways to upset someone manning a remote control console, even if you didn’t intend to. Making the emergency intercom button so prominent and positioning it so close to one of the two most-used controls guarantees a high number of false calls.
I applaud the use of labels in Braille; however, labels for the sighted majority should be prominent, rather than small engravings, subject to wear. Abbreviations and symbols should be instantly recognizable, or they are simply a source of confusion. Far too much effort is required for the casual user to get value from this elevator; there are far too many failure modes, valid choices with no result, and unavailable choices in close proximity to the useful choices. But the most important lesson here should be that compliance with standards and other non-functional requirements is not an excuse to deliver a truly wretched user experience. Would you use software that had a UX like this? Would your target user population? We expect our interactions to be obvious, rather than tedious. Time to value is the difference between acceptance and rejection of a product.
Next time, I’ll take the stairs.