Elevators: the daily fight!

Just upfront: I have not researched this topic nor am I an expert in user interface (UI) design or user experience (UX) – so this is in a sense all highly subjective and opinionated.

Now, on to the topic of elevator user interfaces – I have one word only: catastrophe.

Here’s a user interface that has been with us for about the last 100 years or so I reckon and yet the user experience nor the interface to this device has changed. One could argue that the function hasn’t changed: you go up or down. To which I say that’s true but not an excuse to provide such a horrible user interface and user experience. I suspect the culprit lies in the fact that 100 years ago we were forced to use a particular UI (because computers weren’t invented) and somehow we got stuck with it. In all fairness, elevators do what they do best: move people. So I have no beef with the elevator itself, my beef is with the user interface and the experience around it.

Consider this: you have to call the elevator and indicate which direction you want to go – so you will need two buttons and visual or audible feedback from the elevator to tell you which way it goes (if you’re in a floor that allows for both directions). In theory this would work if all elevators had standardized way of telling you which way they’re going. But in reality that’s not true – some indicate the direction with color (usually red for down and green for up), or with placements of lights (when the light on the left side is lit, the elevator goes down, the light on the right indicates an upward move), or even with specific sounds – rarely do they actually use arrows to indicate where is up and down. Sometimes the buttons that you push will reveal if the elevator is going up or down – when the button is off, the elevator that just opened its door will most likely go in the direction you want it to go. Now, of course there is another aspect here to consider: the overall user experience – does the elevator’s sight & sound blend in with it’s surrounding?

But besides having a special talent of entering always the wrong elevator (if there are 10 and two open nearly at the same time and you’re in a rush – or you just got to the elevators, changes are you take the wrong elevator), I usually manage to get to the right floor.

What I’ve described so far, are mostly the outer layers of the elevator’s function and user interface, let’s take a look at the inside of the elevator. One word: buttons!

Now, here’s a question: you’re in the elevator and you see someone running towards it while the doors are closing – now, out of the about 40 buttons in front of you, which one would you press? It’s one that doesn’t have numbers, but it’s not the red one or the green one – it’s one with a symbol. Oh but there are two: one that indicates to close the doors and one that indicates to open the doors. I usually press the one that closes the door (something freudian going on here I suspect). Now, there are two distinct functions here: you always want to open the door when you see someone running to get in – or when you try to keep the door open (for someone that does a delivery). Of course, the more effective way is to usually force the doors to stay open by breaking the light/infrared barrier.
The other function is to close the doors, in case Aliens or other monsters are running towards the still open elevator door (you've seen these movies) – OR to close it because you don’t want to waste time and nobody is coming in. The problem is that close button just doesn’t seem to work. Or sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t – I think it depends on the elevator or the elevator company or the country you’re in. But if you were to rely on that button for the safety of your life, my advice would be: don’t!
But I just wonder why are these very confusing buttons usually situated right next to each other? They have exactly the same form, same shape and size but different ‘icons’ (hard to decipher in the ambient light of the capsule) and you have a split second to decide which one to press (only to observe that nothing actually happens).

But my biggest gripe with the elevator interface is by far the 40 buttons that indicate which floor you want to go to – there are actually several issues here: how many times have I pushed the wrong button and now to the grief of my 10 or so co-riders, we actually have to stop on that floor, wait for the door to open and for it to close (if the close button does work, it might speed that up by 2 seconds) before the elevator can continue it’s journey. Now, humans make mistakes, so why would we not take that into account when we design the elevator interface? It’s maybe true that there are still some elevators with much simpler user interfaces (the button doesn’t light up when pressed) but most elevators would actually tell you which floor-buttons have been pressed, which means it should be possible to un-press them.

The one-press to rule them all is especially fun when you live in a residential building that has 40 buttons (unlike commercial buildings, they don’t have segregated elevators that only target specific floor) and the neighbor’s kids have a field day with those 40 buttons.

I could go on with dissecting elevator use cases, but the bottom line is that every electronic gadget that I possess has a much more sophisticated interface than most elevators that I ride daily. In other words, cost is certainly not a reason why elevator interfaces have not caught up with the times – so what is?