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User Interface Design: Lessons from an Indianapolis Elevator

While coming to and from a meeting the other day, I rode in an elevator that had this user interface (UI) design:

User interface of an elevator with buttons and labels

I’m guessing the history of this elevator goes something like this:

  1. The elevator was designed and delivered with a very straightforward, easy-to-use user interface such as this:
Elevator UI with Buttons and Labels
  1. A new requirement emerged: We need to support braille!
  2. Rather than redesigning the user interface properly, the updated design was merely crowbarred into the original design.
  3. Requirement met. Problem solved. Or was it?

I was lucky to watch two other people step on the elevator and try to select their floor. One pushed the braille button (perhaps because it was bigger and had more contrast with the background—I don’t know) before realizing it wasn’t a button. A bit flustered (I was staring), she pressed the actual button on her second try. Another person who got on another floor stopped his finger mid-trajectory to analyze his options. He guessed correctly, but not without some careful thought.

I wish I could have observed someone with a visual impairment try to use this elevator. After all, this braille feature was explicitly added for them. But how can braille on a button that’s not even a button allow a visually impaired person to select their floor? That’s not just unhelpful; that’s mean. This user interface redesign failed to address the needs of those with visual impairments and made the user experience confusing for sighted users.

I realize there are all kinds of costs and barriers to modifying a physical interface, such as an elevator’s buttons. However, we don’t have those same barriers with our websites, web apps, and mobile apps. So before you add that cool new feature, ensure you’re implementing it in a way that genuinely meets a new need and doesn’t create a new problem. As always, user test it to be sure!

Jon Arnold

Jon Arnold is a user interface design expert that makes web and mobile apps more user-friendly (and great-looking too!)

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