When does “making it pretty” become “bad design”?

Within the past week, I came across a couple of examples where designers, in an attempt to make something “aesthetically pleasing” ended up creating a bad design.

Image result for Sloan EBV-304-A SOLIS Water Closet Electronic Single Button
In the dimly-lit stall, I couldn’t see the graphic to flush.

The first example, strangely enough, came from a public toilet (don’t worry, I won’t go TMI on you). The flush mechanism was similar to what you see here. It was dark in the toilet stall, so I couldn’t see the little graphic of the finger pressing the button (that you can see clearly in this picture). It looked like one of those auto-flush mechanisms, so I expected it to flush when I stood up. It didn’t. I tried pressing the top of the mechanism and waving my hand in front of it. No dice. It wasn’t until I found the little button along the front edge that I finally got the thing to work. I don’t know how long it took me to figure that out, but I’ll estimate that it took me somewhere between fifteen and thirty seconds — far longer than it should’ve taken me to figure out how to flush a toilet.

How do I get water out of this thing?

The second example happened recently at a friend’s house. The photo you see here is the ice and water dispenser on his refrigerator. I put my water bottle underneath, and naturally, ice came out of it. I then tried to get water. How do I do that? I looked for a button to toggle between ice and water, but couldn’t find one. My friend told me to press the button above the ice dispenser. I pressed the top panel with my finger, expecting my bottle to fill with water. Much to my surprise (and my chagrin), water came out not from under the button and into my bottle, but rather above the panel I was pressing, splashing water onto my hand. Apparently, what I was supposed to do was press the upper panel with my water bottle so that it would dispense into my bottle.

To the people who designed these things: how was I supposed to know that?!?

These are more examples of what I consider to be bad design. It seems like artisans are making more of an effort to make products visually appealing. But in their efforts to make things “pretty,” they’re ignoring making them functional.

Years ago, I remember seeing signs in a local park — “park here,” “keep off the grass,” etc. (I tried to find pictures of them, but have been unsuccessful.) Whomever made the signs went through great efforts to make them look pretty — the person used wood and tree-themed graphics to dress them up and make them look “rustic.” However, the person concentrated so much on making the signs “pretty” that (s)he completely ignored making them readable! The signs were impossible to read. You could not tell what they said. Thankfully, the signs have long since been replaced, and personally, I think the sign-maker should have been fired.

And if you think bad design isn’t a big deal, let me point out that bad interface design has been a factor in some fatal plane crashes, as well as some other major disasters.

People might argue that, “well, of course they’re functional! You just have to know how they work!” Therein lies the rub: you have to know how they work. Making something functional isn’t just a matter of making something that works; it needs to be obvious as to how it works! This is one of my major pet peeves when it comes to design. As someone once said, good design is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it isn’t any good.

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Getting ready to speak at my first PASS Summit

I’m speaking at my very first PASS Summit this year!

I intend to ‘blog about my experience with my first PASS Summit. Hopefully, my exploits will help others who, like me, are also preparing for the first PASS Summit. This represents the first of those articles.

As I write this, PASS Summit is still four months away. Nevertheless, preparations are in full swing. My flight and AirBnB reservations for Seattle are already set. It’s been a while since I was last in Seattle (I think my last trip was in 2005). Seattle is one of my favorite west coast cities to visit, and I always look forward to trips out to the Pacific Northwest. My only regret about this trip is that baseball season will be over by then, so I won’t be able to catch a Mariners game while I’m there.

I do not intend to rent a car for this trip. To be honest, I’m becoming more and more paranoid about driving a car I don’t own in a metropolitan area with which I’m only vaguely familiar. I did rent a car for SQL Saturday in Washington, and driving around the Beltway was a harrowing experience; during that trip, I became very concerned about returning my rental car with a dent. So for PASS Summit, I intend to rely on public transportation; all my stops — Sea-Tac Airport, my AirBnB, and the Convention Center — are all along the light rail line. If I need a car, I’ll bum a ride off someone, or I’ll contact Uber or Lyft.

Prep work for the event itself on my end is also rolling as well. I’ve gotten emails from PASS about what I need to do to get ready. I’ve registered as a speaker, and I put my presentation into a new PowerPoint template supplied by PASS (and in doing so, I think I made my presentation even better — a lot of the changes will likely end up going into my regular slides). They’re supposed to review my slides, so I’m waiting for them to get back to me as to what changes (if any) I need to make. There are some things about my prep I’m not allowed to discuss — per PASS rules, I’m not allowed to discuss some things until they’ve announced it first — so, alas, I can’t talk about all my prep work.

Last night, I was at Ed Pollack‘s house, helping to prep for this weekend’s SQL Saturday. Knowing that Ed has experience speaking at PASS Summit (he’ll be speaking at his fourth this year), I asked him what I should expect. He told me to “expect at least one question that you can’t answer” during my presentation — maybe something impossible to answer, something I don’t know, or even something that has nothing to do with my presentation. He also told me that PASS Summit would be very busy — apparently there are many activities around PASS Summit that take place. I have friends and family either in or near Seattle; we’ll see how much of a chance I’ll have to get together with them.

I also figure that Matt Cushing‘s advice will likely come into play here. A good chunk of his presentation revolves around activities at PASS Summit. I guess I’ll find out in November how much of it comes into play!

Another thing on my mind is room setups. Although I’ve spoken at many SQL Saturdays, even the largest room in which I’ve spoken pales in comparison to the rooms at PASS Summit. I’m not necessarily nervous about speaking in front of a large crowd — I lost my sense of stage fright a long time ago — as much as I am curious as to how it’s going to work. It’s not something I’ll need to be concerned about until I’m closer to the date, but it is, nevertheless, something that’s on my mind.

I did a Google search for “what to expect at PASS Summit” and came across some interesting links. Some of those links are below (admittedly, I’m listing these for my own reference).

It’s still four months to PASS Summit, but a number of things are already in motion. I’ll be writing more about my experiences as we get closer to November!