How hard can it be to navigate to flat number 7?

Breaking free from the chains of your own experience to truly understand the experience of your service users.

One of my friends recently moved to a fancy new flat and they invited me over. They had provided me with the address and flat number. On arrival at the address I saw a simple keypad that I assumed (correctly) was the buzzer.

The instructions for the keypad entry system were clearly displayed as follows:

  • Use the arrows, then Bell

  • or enter Flat No.

I decided to enter the flat number on the keypad. So, I pressed 7 and then the bell button. Nothing happened – no sounds or visual feedback. No nothing. So, I entered the number again 7 and pressed the bell button. Still nothing.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. - Albert Einstein

I did the same thing a number of times applying more force with my fingers and accompanying the action with an increasing number of groans and obscenities. This did not help. The buzzer did not work.

After a suitable number of attempts I finally decided to use the arrows to navigate to flat number 7. On pressing the right arrow the display immediately changed to display flat number 1, correctly, but not in the format I was expecting:

The display showed the number 1 in the format 001. Now, I knew what the keypad had been expecting so I entered flat 7 in the format 007 and the buzzer rang the flat immediately.

This new build apartment block was in an area filled with new builds so I went to check out the buzzers on a number of the nearby buildings. They were all the same – they expected the flat numbers to be entered in the unusual 3-digit format and provided no instructions to indicate this.

How could the designers and engineers behind the keypad buzzer system have missed that, for users, their design does not work as expected? How could this problem, that can be so easily fixed, have been replicated in all of their keypads?

What could have been done differently?

If the designers had observed even one person, not within their team, use a keypad they could have understood the average user's contextual model of the system (how users view the keypad to work). In fact, they could have taken just 30 minutes to test the design without building anything. Here's how:

  1. Fetch a calculator

  2. Stick a bell icon over the enter button

  3. Stick the simple keypad instructions to the top of the calculator

  4. Stick the calculator to the wall

  5. Ask 5 people to buzz flat number 7 on the keypad

  6. Observe the buttons the user presses and have them say out loud what they are thinking as they do this

  7. Take a note of how they interact with the system

There are many other ways they could have prototyped the system but the important point is that they should have observed people using the keypad. In fact they could still go out and observe people using their keypad in order to improve future systems or to update their current system.

It's never too late to observe your users using your service or product.There is always something you can learn and improve upon.

Breaking free of experience

Experience is extremely helpful. It allows us to understand what is needed in the most common scenarios within our field with extreme speed and accuracy. Experience can also lead to a number of assumptions – some of which may be false. Experience is not an excuse to skip the work of observing how a service or product is being used by your users in practice. Experience helps you understand the value of observation and feedback. The more experience you gain the more you know that assumptions lead to easy-to-fix mistakes that don't get fixed.

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