Beyond digital – affordance of everyday objects revisited

We are immersed in a world of usability issues. They are all around. From objects we use everyday in the home to the positioning of turnstiles at some of London’s tube stations.

Shower-tap control

My first bugbear is the shower control at the Oasis Sports Centre in Convent Garden. I use the outside pool in winter and getting under a hot shower quickly is a priority. The shower tap control mechanism consists of two rings, one controls water pressure and the other, temperature. Which is which is unclear to me and it takes a number of attempts to achieve the desired temperature. This is usually achieved after blasts of, either ice cold or, very hot water. After more than a year I have not yet achieved mastery of the mechanism. Am I slow at learning or is the learnability of the device weak?

In-flight entertainment remote control

On a South African Airways flight recently I found the remote control for the in-flight entertainment system practicality unusable. I struggled to turn it off, and once off, I struggled to turn it on again. I could not find any correlation between the symbols on the remote control and what was expected to happen on the screen. This annoyed me to the extent of vowing (unreasonably perhaps) to not use the airline again.


I’m not implying that either of these devices are deficient because I could not use them at first attempt. The problem could simply be me. The Frenchman in the adjoining seat on the flight to Johannesburg showed me how to turn the in-flight entertainment system off and appeared to be at ease with the remote control.

This troubles me slightly for as a user experience designer I see myself as someone who should be able to understand how things work. Should I not be skilled in decoding a designer’s intentions when using their inventions?

But this is liberating for it illustrates how we apply our mental models onto things around us. What I take from this is that as a designer I should be an observer first, and observing my own behaviour is a good place to start.

It would be revealing to get 5 people in a room to test these two devices. The results should be very interesting, if only to shed light on where I, as a designer, stand in relation to others, and whether it is unreasonable to regard myself as a typical user.