Durable design: still possible?

A simple and good design can last and last. Consider the qualities of a BC Telephones operator’s chair from the 1930s:

Telephone operators (ca. 1932)

Environmentally defensible. It is made primarily of a renewable resource—wood—and is so durable that, after decades, it still withstands daily use.

Functional. Originally, at BC Tel, this chair fit a small space, swivelled so the operator could get in and out of a small workspace, and provided a place for the operator’s personal items. After it was decommissioned, this compact and strong chair continued to be functional in other settings.

Aesthetically appealing. I’m thinking of the wood, the form, and the chair’s history. This chair has only marginally been repurposed, because it still seats people as they connect to a telco service—formerly a telephone, now Internet access.

Can we still design objects that last as long as this chair has?

A wooden chair from a telephone operator “call centre”. The video shows the chair’s swivel- and coat-hook features.

Up and down the TV channels

My television lets me step through the channels. To do this, I use the remote control’s CH button. Similarly, my television lets me page through the list of programs, five channels at a time. To do this, I use the remote control’s PG button. In fact, it’s one button for the stepping and paging functions.

My remote control

The programs in the list are shown in numeric order, so smaller numbers are higher in the list. Pressing “+” will page the list up, so “+” leads to smaller numbers. Similarly, pressing “–” will page the list down, to larger numbers. This follows the same mental model as scrolling in a computer window, including the one you’re reading in, now.

Scrolling up

In contrast, when I’m watching one channel (full-screen, so with the program guide hidden), the same two buttons have the inverse effect. The “+” button increases the number of the channel (which is like moving down in the programs list, not up). This follows the same mental model as a spin control in many computer programs.

Spinning up

Imagine using the one button in succession for the two functions:

first as PG to page through the menu
  and then, after selecting a channel,
as CH to step through the channels.

I see in this an excellent problem for a practicum student or as a class assignment that’s combining user research, design, GUI, and handheld devices. Possible questions:

  • What research would confirm that this is, in fact, a problem?
  • If you confirm the problem, is it entirely on the hardware side? How many people are affected?
  • Is there a business case to fix the problem?
  • How could you fix it? What design methods and processes would you use? Why?
  • How could you demonstrate that your design fixes the problem? Is there a lower-cost way to validate the design, and, if so, what are the trade-offs?