Executing Bad Designers to Encourage the Others

I was planning to write a blog on good design. I was thinking about it while driving to a ferry early in the morning. Upon arrival at the ferry pier, the weather is much worse than normal for the season and passengers are waiting, generally underdressed, in a cold windy drizzle. The ferry pulls in and discharges its passenger, and then the crew closes the gate to the pier and goes inside the ferry.

The passengers wait in the wind and rain. Why? Quite possibly somebody set a simple rule at some time that directs the crew not to let passengers aboard before a certain time of departure. Who knows where the rule came from, but there the crew is nice and toasty aboard the ferry and the passengers are freezing in the wet outside.

Something is seriously wrong here. To a large extent it is the corporate culture, because the crew can see the freezing passengers, and I am sure this is not the first day passengers are waiting in the cold. If the crew is focused on customer service, they would notice this and ask management to make adjustments.

There is possibly also something wrong with the passengers, because we like this ferry service and do not want to be perceived as complainers. But is it complaining, or providing feedback to fix problems? That then leads me to the many, often excruciatingly badly designed, customer feedback surveys that fill my inbox.

I actually once ran an experiment with United Airlines where for three years I answered every survey (and they would send them after every flight, with a “We care about your concerns” subject line!). I would carefully describe their inability to provide the level of customer service that Continental managed to supply before the merger and provided suggestions to fix their problems. Identifying problems was easy, because United is unique in being able to screw things up in novel ways at every flight.

Not once did I get a response from anybody at United. With the level of feedback I provided, United’s service should have vastly improved, but there is no evidence of that. (Last month they served chocolate quinoa snacks. Are you kidding me?) I avoid flying with United whenever I can and, due to their bad design, both United and I lose.

The problem with bad design is that it is severely asymmetrical; one lazy moronic designer can make life difficult for millions of people and, if not corrected, can continue to do it forever. I try to escape bad design, but there is too much bad design that I can’t escape. Too often I think: If only I can find the designer of this or that. I will restrain myself and not cause immediate physical harm, and will first explain slowly and carefully, with diagrams, research and design alternatives if needed, how they screwed up and ask them to fix it and never do it again or quit designing stuff.

There is so much bad design out there. Car dashboards with horrible viewing angles and reflections that cannot be read in certain conditions. Touchscreens that are mounted so far out of reach that it is dangerous to work them while driving. Why are car touchscreens not adjustable to make them easy to reach? Why use touch screens when dials and buttons can do the job better? Fitting a dial or a switch on a touchscreen is dirt cheap and simple. (See the Ford Mustang Mach-E touchscreen).

A volume button mounted right on the Mustang Mach-E’s touchscreen. Rotating it simply simulates finger movement. All it takes it is glueing a button on the screen, and some programming. No wiring required.

Trapezoidal rearview mirrors, that, I kid you not, are configured to be an opposite match to the shape of the rear windows. Shower controls in hotels that are inscrutable, and therefore require you to take a 50/50 shot at running the water in one direction or the other and waiting for one or the other to heat up.

I need to stop …. blood pressure … sharp pain… find nitro pills.

I have felt this way for many years and when I raised this for the millionth time with my wife, she told me that positive reinforcement is so much better than negative reinforcement. However, I absolutely cannot think of a way to positively address total stupidity. How do I go about that? Thank you for your stupid design, I really appreciate it, but maybe you can ………? Wrong is wrong. Strictly speaking there is only one way to prevent bad design, that is the Byng method.

Byng was a British Admiral who did not fight enough. He might have had a good reason not to fight, but admirals are supposed to fight. He was court martialed for not fighting and executed. There was an uproar by his friends, but Voltaire provided the most lucent comment on the affair in his novel Candide where a Brit explains to Candide: “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).

Shooting a couple of bad designers for their injuries to the public at large will almost certainly improve the overall quality of design overnight. Unfortunately, I am a realist; wishing is not expecting it to happen. Besides Bynging, I can only think of one less effective alternative, and that is to praise good design.

Occasionally I am lucky. I have a refrigerator that is literally brilliantly laid out for access. Every time I open it, I get a little jolt of happiness. And every morning when I make some toast, or heat up a piece of old pizza, I marvel at the controls of my Breville toaster oven.

Instead of a touch pad, it has these lovely dials that interact intuitively with the display in a way that is a joy to operate.


But that is not all. It is also a size that allows you to cook real food up to a small chicken or a 12” pizza.

Besides great human factors design, it also is an excellent oven. It was tested by my expert testers (my wife’s aides; marvelous Italian and Georgian chefs). For bread baking, they judge this little oven to be vastly better than our full-size gas oven and, let’s face it, baking Georgian and Italian bread is the most accurate and rigorous test of any oven.

Better controls, less power and better food. It is good to focus on the positive. The irony is that after I use the Breville first thing in the morning, my day can only get worse. Maybe I should eat toast at night too, it might keep me from having bad design nightmares.