Recently, I watched someone try to wash his hands after using a public toilet. He struggled with the task, unable to get the water to flow, until I felt designer pain creep up my fingers. I needed to think about this.
My first thought was: this is valuable insight. Somebody had made things harder than they needed to be. The error was obvious – there were multiple, conflicting affordances and people apparently tended to chose the wrong one. So the solution was to design a better tap.
This is where I stopped and set myself the task of gaining outsight: To think about what I had truly seen. Because what had drawn my attention to this conundrum was neither a long line of patrons with dirty, unwashed hands followed by a sudden outbreak of some unspeakable disease laying waste to human civilization, but a small sign attached to the mirror right above the tap.
It was a reminder that designing is like traveling along a path. A path, that you never go alone: there is always the user by your side. Plus the people who set the prices and the timetables, for example – stakeholders. The user sometimes follows you along the path, sometimes leads you. The stakeholders sometimes open the doors for the path to continue and blocks others – and so often decide the course of the path that should be followed by the user. If the path is a good path, fine. If not, this may be because they do no know better, we have not succeeded in showing the errors, or because they themselves live in a corridor – and there are a very limited number of doors at the end of a corridor.
So given the circumstances, they all made it as easy as possible. And together, they – stakeholder, designer, user – succeeded. Because of course I could after all wash my hands – and so did the man I had observed.
But also consider this: it is sometimes the circumstances we need to reflect upon, not the problems we are tasked with solving.