DESIGNated Drivers: Physical Cues

Welcome to a new miniseries about design in our everyday lives. It rules our lives in literally every aspect. Yet, despite us being at its mercy we don’ realize it. Even more sinisterly (which is now a word), we create things every day with crappy design and subject others to the torture of having to deal with our decisions. DESIGNated Drivers intends to look at the influences of design in our lives and how we interact with different kinds of design in different arenas.

Industrial Design: Ergonomics and Skeumorphism

6 dead, 12 injured after Metro-North train hits SUV in Westchester. Sadly, these kinds of stories happen more often than we’d like them to. We’ve tried many different ways to get people’s attention–ranging from an organization called Operation Lifesaver to singing about Dumb Ways to Die.

This crash was a little bit different. Before we get to that, we have to define a few terms.

Skeumorphism has a contentious history. It’s good. It’s bad. It’s both. It’s neither. Basically, it’s mimetics–emulating real-life objects in a different environment. We’ve come to know it as the old Apple’s notebook paper and stitching on apps.

And they weren’t bad things. When computers first began, skeumorphism served as a handy road map to the new, digital world. Operating Systems like Microsoft Bob had this kind of layout:

The idea worked. People know how an office worked–and they were able to use the skeumorph to interact with the digital world in almost the exact same way as they would in the physical one. Sometimes, skeumorphs are decorative:

C’mon. That handle is useless.

Mental Shortcuts

Based on our experience living in the world, we’ve got a mental idea about how certain things should work. We don’t like it when things don’t work they way they’re supposed to. Call it heuristicsHeuristics are mental shortcuts that let us get stuff done without having to go through an entire process every single time cause let’s be honest

6 dead. 12 injured.

So what happened here?

We’ve only got a theory, but it’s a good one. Core77, an industrial design blog focused on the investigation into the gearshift lever. 

This is the standard American lever:

Note the order: PRND. So one click down from Park is Reverse, and three from Park is Drive. Not so different from the one you see every day.  This is like this because in most cars up until now–the transmission was physically connected to the lever. By pulling the lever, the driver actually literally puts the car in gear in that order. If you’re American, you’re used to this–and I’m willing to bet you’ve never given it all that much thought. Well, reality check–not thinking about you can KILL YOU.

That seems to be what happened here. This is what the gear shifter looked like on the accident car:

That’s great, but what does that mean?

According to Core77, this is what happened:

It makes no sense—until you consider what must have happened. Brody gets back into her car, presumably pauses to put her seatbelt on, then puts the car in reverse, to back up and snap the gate off if need be. Instead the car moves forward directly into the path of the train.

This picture says a lot. First off, with the advent of drive-by wire, we no longer need to have transmissions follow that PRND convention because a computer can switch gears at the push of a button even. But people are used to the PRND configuration. Like I said earlier, if something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to–we won’t like it. The driver’s mental image and expectations mean that pushing the gear lever one level down would make the car go backwards.

But here, one click down isn’t R. It’s D.

When worlds don’t line up

Here’s the situation: There’s a train coming. The arms are coming down. You’re stuck on the tracks and you’re low-key freaking out. You know that your gear shift lever is different from what you’re used to. So you put it in reverse and back up–but not enough. The arm is now on your car.

So you put your car in park and get out to see if you can’t remove the gate from your car without breaking it. No dice. NOW you’re freaking out. You get back in your car and plan on putting your car in reverse and snapping off the arm–to hell with civility.

Remember now–every car you’ve ever driven has reverse as one click down from park. This one is different. One click down is drive and one click up is reverse.

So you–panicking and in a hurry–move your gear lever down one click as you would normally do in a car, expecting to go backwards.

It does not go backwards.

Instead you shoot forwards right into the path of a train.

Design rules all

The investigation is still pending. But I’m sure that the woman in the Mercedes was neither stupid nor had a death wish. All she did wrong was rely on a heuristic that almost all Americans have when things got troublesome. She was unlucky that in this case, her heuristic let her down the wrong path.

Think about it. You’ve got a mental instruction manual about how to use everything in your life. If you’re used to Windows, there will be a learning curve as you learn the differences between Win8 and Mac. Things just won’t be “where they should be.”

So what does this mean for design?

It means that to an extent, we should design to fit with the times. If we get too radical we could end up doing more harm than good. The interplay between our physical world, online world, and mental world are crossing all the time–and it behooves us to be aware of that intricate dance.

It might make the difference between life and death.


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