What elevators can teach us about web design and usability.

ElevatorEver notice how we tend to look up while waiting for an elevator to arrive? That’s where the elevator indicator lights are, for all elevators. Even when the car arrives and the doors open, we glance up at the indicator lights to see whether our ride is going up or down.

Why are the indicator lights always placed above the doors, well above eye level? Why do we have to crane our necks to see a signal regarding a door that’s directly in front of our faces? Well, if there’s a small crowd standing in front of you, an eye-level display would be blocked.  It makes sense to put the display high, where everyone can see it.

When elevators were first invented they all had trained operators on board. They helped you get you where you needed to go: easily, quickly, and safely. These elevator conductors were expertly trained to ask just the right question, “Going up, sir?” These operators were necessary for several reasons.  Push-button controls had not been invented yet. The controls were also vastly different from today’s controls.  But, perhaps most importantly, the controls were all different from one another.

As technology advanced and buildings with elevators became numerous, controls became standardized. They were so easy to use that the public no longer needed any assistance. Because of this, the public was inadvertently trained to look at the display above the elevators. It was learned behavior on a mass scale: we all habitually look up above the elevator because that is where we find the important information. We do not look at the relatively large door immediately in front of us because we know the small display above the elevator is more informative.  In fact, in larger, fancier lobbies with multiple elevators, the indicators will even tell you which approaching car is your best bet.

Everybody’s elevator transactions go smoother because elevator makers follow suit with roughly the same useful design. Users seldom, if ever, need to ask for assistance to get the elevator to go where they want it to go.

smoother transactions are the results when your website is designed as expected

The evolution of elevators and their usage is quite similar to the evolution of the Internet and the use of websites.  The placement and context of elements – especially controls – affects the usability of your website.  Masses of people have learned to expect certain elements in roughly the same spot.  Placing them where (and how) they’re expected facilitates easy, quick, and smooth transactions between you and the users of your website.  For example, search bars can be located in various spots on a page, but like the signals for elevators, they are invariably placed on “high ground” at the top of a site.  This is because users look to “high ground” expecting to find a search box.

Here’s a specific example of search bar placement. Facebook, Google, and Twitter aren’t very collaborative companies, but from these screenshots (below), you’d think they hired the same designer. The similarities aren’t by coincidence. Collectively, the designers don’t want you having an awkward moment on their website.  They don’t want users to have any doubt or hesitation when looking for their search bar.  This is the most important moment that you will spend on their page.  It is about being able to find the information  when you want it.

it’s not about you, web designers, it’s about the content

Just like the novelty of the elevator died around in the latter half of the 19th century when people started using elevators more frequently in skyscrapers and apartments, web design is well past it’s novelty stage. At some point, elevators stopped being amazing and started to simply be useful. And perhaps, it’s time that web designers stop designing websites for the sake of design, and focus on making sure that these sites are simply useful.

Here at Infamia, we are inspired by both the time-tested aphorism “form follows function” and the Earl of Chesterfield’s quote, “Style is the dress of thought.” We help make your site as usable as possible. The mechanics of it all – the underlying technology and design –– are crucial, but to a user it is, or should be, invisible.  Just as the technicality of each individual brushstroke and choice of pigment is necessary to construct a masterful painting, so, too, are the components of your website. If your site is done well, unless the user is a web professional evaluating your site design, he will never notice how it’s been put together.  But, he will notice whether he likes the site or not. In other words, design should exist to support the content.

The better your navigation, graphic displays, SEO, workflow, reliability, speed, readability, and so on, the less your users will even notice.  Instead, they will focus on the overall site effect and experience.  Here at Infamia, helping you achieve that is our job.  “Going up, Sir?”


Tags: , ,