I had the pleasure of being taken out for lunch the other Sunday – nowhere particularly swanky, just to the HaHa Bar in Leeds, but nice all the same. I’ve been there a few times before and what always sticks in my mind is the confusion surrounding the hand washing arrangements. Simple you might think, approach a basin, turn on the tap a bit of soap and hey presto… not so here.

Which brought to mind Ben Elton’s sketches about a theoretical Ministry of Crap Design where he featured such delights as fast-food take away napkins that seem to have a moisture resistant coating and those metal teapots found in motorway service stations that seem to be specifically designed to pour tea everywhere except in your cup. In fact thinking about it I have a saucepan with pouring spout, that does exactly the same. The water just pours down the side of the pan into a puddle next to whatever you were pouring into. But I digress.

Back to the hand washing. The problem was the taps. They looked like taps and they were in the right place to be taps but I couldn’t work out how to turn the bl**dy things on. There was nothing to turn and no amount of hand waving was convincing them to turn on either. Now I don’t consider myself stupid but really if I have to think about how to turn the tap on then it’s a crap design – no matter how beautiful it looks. The below is for illustration only, it is a beautiful looking tap and not one of the offending ones to be found in the HaHa bar… but it’s still lacking some of the obvious components of a tap.

posh tap

Suffice to say that I worked it out and everything was OK but some weeks later… I found myself in the same bar, same toilets and whilst this time I had managed to wash my hands and was minding my own business drying them, a lady walked over and said: “Excuse me, do you know how to turn the taps on?” How crap is that. This is what happens when designers get ‘creative’ and try to reinvent the wheel – or the tap in this case. Us mere mortals can marvel at the beauty but get quickly frustrated because we have to stop and think about how to work something that for years has been second nature to us.

There’s another bar in Leeds, which shall remain nameless, but last time I went there (and it is a fair while ago admittedly) the doors to the toilets were covered in the same material as the walls with no obvious signs or handles. Genius. And what about those signs on the doors to tell which is male and female – we’re all familiar with which sign represents us but you go in some restaurants where the interior designer thought it would be a good idea to be a bit edgy and use some kind of indecipherable hieroglyphic code instead. Life really is too short for such nonsense.

I frequently come across the same problems with websites where the designer has got carried away and decided that they want to be different and break with convention. As a result you get websites that just feel awkward to use. You know the ones where the logo and so ‘home’ button are on the right instead of the left, where the navigation is hidden somewhere down the page instead of horizontally at the top and the navigation labels themselves have been ‘creatively’ copywritten. There’s nothing wrong with ‘about us’ and ‘contact us’ – we know what’s going to happen when we click them!

Well it turns out that whilst we’re experiencing things our subconscious is learning patterns of behaviour and remembering them, often before we even become conscious of them. Think of them like stored short cuts so we don’t need to learn the same thing again next time. The more we use things, the stronger and more ingrained these learnt pattens become and the more inconsistent these design anomalies feel. Imagine putting your door handles at floor level because it would look cool – it’d drive you nuts after a while because you’d automatically go for the place that you’ve learnt that a handle should be. The same goes for websites, we expect that a logo will appear at the top left of the web page, we know that clicking it should take us to the home page. We know that if we see a rectangular shaped with rounded corners and a 3D effect that its probably a button – incidentally, I actually got asked to change the design of such a button to the shape of a vegetable because it “would be more quirky”. Give me strength.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and try using your own website – see if it’s as easy as you think. In the context of web design there is a discipline dedicated to designing websites that are intuitive to the user and that’s Usability (the subject of future posts I’m sure). Usability is wholly concerned with establishing, understanding and following these patterns. If you think your site could be better and you want to know more then I thoroughly recommend Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

It tells you everything you need to know. It should be compulsory reading for every single website designer out there and if it were, then the web would be a much better place. Although admittedly it wouldn’t help us get proper taps and clear toilet signage.

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