By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato
Questions are the important thing, answers are less important. Learning to ask a good question is the heart of intelligence. Learning the answer-well, answers are for students. Questions are for thinkers. ~Roger Schank
Elevators are interesting. I use elevators as a model on the first day of any programming class, interface design unit, or STEM class. I find it fascinating to have students stop and think about how everything works and how everything is designed.
I use elevators because they are a universal norm; a mode of transport every student is familiar with using. However, the best part about using elevators on the first day of class, is everyone thinks they know everything about them. As students deconstruct the elevator, they realize there is an entire world of creation they have never noticed.
The day after the initial class, students often tell me they are angry. They are angry because now they are studying every small detail when they use the elevator, it is not longer just a quick hassle free ride.
Recently I experienced two elevators in two very different hotels. The first hotel was a fairly standard US chain. The second hotel was on the upper end of the luxury scale in Asia. In both places, the elevators had horrible design flaws. I am certain that elevator number two was significantly more expensive to purchase. That fact did not negate the issues with user interface or reliability.
I began to wonder about the people who worked on designing these elevators, building them, and selling them to the hotels. These teams had to be worlds apart, yet, making the same mistakes. These teams obviously had very different and diverse backgrounds, yet, they ended-up in the same place with the same problems.
In a connected world this type of outcome should be fairly rare. It seems as if people should be able to study existing models, research back through history, physically explore and test systems that already exist, and easily interview people about their experiences. Yet, these team did not do that. I believe they worked in an insular fashion, and over complicated a traditional and reliable system.
Over Design and Over Development
Solutions are normally constructed with a series of processes all working together, and usually in some required order. There is a tendency for people to focus on a single link in the chain and the over develop that particular area. When this happens, the solutions and/or design weakens as a whole.
For example, assume someone is designing the security system in an elevator. The default process is to use a simple card swipe. Someone decides to make the product and solution more modern by removing the card swipe and switching to bio-metrics. This requires the use of fingerprints for everyone who is known to work in the building. The technology works, but many challenges start to appear:
- Dust on the surface is tough to manage
- The scanner is not adjustable, and not accessible to people who are in wheelchairs or on crutches
- The fingerprint database has an additional cost due to backups and emergency power
- A by-pass has to be installed for VIPs who may take the wrong elevator, thus allowing anonymous access
- Updating the system is slow, and requires all security guards to have an additional 6 hours of training
This example is not entirely fiction. There are many case studies on situations like this where people over develop solutions. An older example, but truly timeless in my opinion, is the Denver Airport Baggage System. I will not go into details, but it is worth a read.
Another consequence of over designing and over thinking is stagnation. Good ideas simply never get off the ground. The desire for perfection starts to consume the project, and eventually, the momentum fades. People will generally find a solution or work around for their problems, even if that means compromising in areas that should be held to a high standard.
When solving a problem or developing a new idea the best rule to follow is to look-up and look-out. Explore the world and the ideas of the past and present. Find the same idea, or similar idea, and ask questions. Get the story, including the anecdotes, because facts and function are rarely where the secrets live.