Thursday 26 April 2018

A design for life... and ovens

Convinced she had a cognitive inability to work her oven, Sarah Carey discovers that it's the design, stupid

Sarah Carey admits she is the kind of person who can't even work oven clocks. Photo: Getty Images.
Sarah Carey admits she is the kind of person who can't even work oven clocks. Photo: Getty Images.
Sarah Carey.

You know the voice in your head? The one that says you do stuff badly that other people magically get right? The one that wonders why the simple things go wrong - just for you? (If your voice does not say these things, but tells you how marvellous you are - there's no need to read further).

For the rest of us, I bring good news! It's not you.

First, let me tell you about my oven. There's a red switch at the wall that controls the power both to the oven and the hob. It's a gas hob, and with little children around, we turn off the power so they can't light it behind our backs. Standard health-and-safety measure. When you switch it off, the clock on the oven goes off, too. But the oven doesn't work unless the clock is set. So every time you turn the power back on, you have to set the clock again.

I don't know how to set the clock.

Under the digital display, there's a button and a knob. When you press the button, it switches the clock into different modes. Turning the knob changes the time. In one mode, you set the actual time. In another, you can set a timer. In the fanciest mode, you can get the oven to switch on and off when you're not there, so the dinner is cooked when you get home. Which sounds amazing, if only one had the first clue how to operate it.

On an almost daily basis, I turn on the power switch, press the button under the clock a couple of times and turn the dial to some random time. Then the oven will work. It's a bit erratic, though. Sometimes I've set the timer and a really loud alarm will go off, usually when I'm on the phone. Other times, I've set the oven to turn off half way through cooking a Victoria sponge, one of my specialities.

I've owned this oven for 12 years, so you'd think I'd have figured it out by now. But I just decided I'm the kind of person who can't work oven clocks. The problem was me. Or so I thought.

Then I finally picked up an improving book I'd been avoiding for years. It's called The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It didn't look enticing, as a flick-through revealed technical drawings. But I gave it a go, and it has transformed my perspective on life.

The point of the book is: we're not the problem.

Norman documents how fancy designers and architects have been making a hash of designing everything from doors to phones to fridges and ovens so that we end up feeling like idiots, when in actual fact, the designers are the idiots. They want things to look nice, at the expense of being easy to use.

It's a plague. It's why my poor mother, who was babysitting for my sister, spent 20 minutes trying to light her gas oven before she copped it was an electric oven. It's why we end up feeling stupid for pushing at doors that should be pulled. And why you can't transfer a call on the office phone system.

Bad design doesn't simply make life a nuisance. It's serious! Norman was one of the investigators into the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and discovered that the supposed "human error" was caused by a poorly designed warning light. It was quite an epiphany, and I've felt much better about my erratic oven operation since, and much more informed about life in general.

Just a while ago, I was watching Room to Improve. As Dermot Bannon installed the inevitable wall of glass on the back of a house, the lady client objected to the timber frames. It made a window look like a door, and people would keep trying to open it, she suggested. He kept banging on about the "aesthetic", but I was shouting at the telly; "She's right! It's a Norman door!" She made him change it.

It didn't look as good, but it didn't look like a door.

While it's always comforting to have a scapegoat for one's problems, I think the professionals should heed the plaintive cries of users on this one. Everyday things are for everyday people.

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