Saturday, June 25, 2016

Keep it Simple

I'm naked as a jaybird, standing in a strange shower in a strange hotel room in a strange city. It's 330AM, and I have a 530AM flight not heading home, but to yet another city. I've been on the road for two days, have another two to go, and this is week six of spending multiple nights in a rented bed. To say I'm in a very vulnerable state doesn't begin to capture it. And so the last thing I need is anxiety over how to get hot water. And yet that's what is turning my knees to jelly.

Doesn't matter if it's a shower or a coffee maker, a computer or a remote, a teapot or a phone. The holy grail of industrial design is threefold: make it beautiful, make it functional, make it intuitive. Do that, and the world will beat a path to your door. Or more likely these days, to your web portal, Ebay store or Amazon cloud page.  

But beyond those three guiding principles, there's one more: make it simple. Wrapped up in all that is the idea that if you're making toast or a flying an aircraft, the controls should be reduced the simplest ones possible. There's nothing worse than having to make an adjustment of any kind and having to spend time figuring out how to do it. If you're taking a picture and you can't figure out the flash on/off button, your kid can go from adorable to bratty before you snap the shutter.  

Of course, the challenge is much higher with intricate pieces of equipment. Nuclear reactors, automobile climate controls, your new phone: each of these sports complexity and optional states that are several orders of magnitude over turning on a light or opening a garage door. In each of those cases it takes skill and creative thinking by the best minds available to figure out how to make it obvious and intuitive to prevent a meltdown, defog the windows or order a pizza. Consider the pencil sharpener: even if you had never seen one before you would know how to run it. And in short order you would be ready to write or jab your kid brother in the arm.  

Which brings us back to that shower control. The old arrangement of one knob for hot and one for cold was simple, intuitive and functional. But it missed the mark of beauty. True, you can have nicer knobs or levers, but they're not going to win any design awards. So designers tried some alternate configurations. There's a single knob or lever that revolves and increases in temperature as you go. There're levers that rise or fall, with temperature being a function of deflection from center. And a dozen more schemes that someone came up with in the quest for a more perfect shower.

And then then there was this particular monstrosity shaped like an X-Wing fighter. Maybe it offered massaging jets. Maybe it offered variable pressures. Maybe if offered finely regulated temperatures. Maybe it had disco lights, conference calling and room service chicken wings. No matter: at 330 in the morning, all I wanted was to turn it on and not get squirted with ice water and I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO IT.

I had to go get my glasses and stand directly in front of it puzzling out pictographs that made an Ikea instruction manual read like Shakespeare. After several minutes of thought and consideration, being no closer to the answer than when I started, I threw caution to the wind. I tossed my glasses on the vanity, gritted my teeth and turned the first knob I came to. Of course, out shot a frigid stream, causing me to yelp loud enough to wake up the adjoining room. I jumped back, mashing my elbow on the marble wall, and almost slipping and killing myself. The water went from cold to hot. Very hot. I jumped out, then contorted my arm to get to the controls. Finding a knob that seemed promising, I twisted it, only to have jets shoot straight out like lasers. I quickly twisted it back, then tried another. This time the spray went from needles to pulses. I set it back then tried another. Finally, the temperature moderated, and I stepped in. Fail, fail and fail.

Next time I'm taking a sponge bath.


Marc Wollin of Bedford must have a hot shower in the morning. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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