Musing about design and convenience

I’ve just got to Shanghai for the first time, and despite working through what passed for night in China and in the UK, I found myself bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of beans. Having been ensconced in design strategy papers for a good few days, I think I’m looking at everything through “design” eyes, and trying to make sure I’m not jaundiced in any way.

The first thing that made me feel good was the socket (or what I used to call a “plug-point” in India). At the hotel here, they have sockets that look like this:

Wikipedia (which is where I got that illustration, by the way) tells me that this is a Type G (British 3 Pin) plug and socket, conforming to BS 1363. Which means I didn’t need an adaptor for once, a nice feeling. Strange, that I have to come all the way to China to get that feeling. Incidentally, just take a look at this map, available from Wikimedia Commons:

What the map does is set out the plug type in use in a given region, and it’s interesting to see some sort of colonial history laid out in the process. We’d probably get something similar if we looked at rail gauges, I guess, and I can’t help worrying that there’s an internet variant just waiting for us, a 21st century map of standards and protocols that reflect colonies of lock-in.

Enough worrying. There are so many things in this hotel room that make me feel good, that make me realise that someone’s applied thought to the design of the room, that someone’s actually considered what the customer may want.

There’s the ethernet point just where you would look for one, built subtly into the desk and covered with a little removable leather pad; there’s the cups and saucers and tea bags loudly signalling the existence of a kettle somewhere, and the kettle turns out to be where you would look for it, and the socket turns out to be where you would look for it. And the tea bags included a selection of green tea and jasmine. Something I guess you would expect in China, like the torch thoughtfully placed in the wardrobe almost at eye level.

Lots of little things that show that someone thought about what people want. My favourite is the wardrobe itself. It’s in the usual place, to my right as I enter the room, along the passageway to the area where the bed and desk are. What makes it special is what they’ve done to the back of the wardrobe. Sliding doors, accessible from the bathroom. Now that is useful. And simple.

Putting things where people would intuitively look for things. Looking at, and catering for,  all possible uses when designing something. Using open standards wherever possible. Building things with the customer in mind, actually thinking about how the customer would use something. Precisely how. Thinking about where a customer’s eye would fall, what his reach would be.

When we design systems, there is much we can learn from people who take customer service seriously. Like the hotel in Shanghai I happen to be staying in.

13 thoughts on “Musing about design and convenience”

  1. It is indeed a pleasure to find something well-designed, and discovering the depths of that well-design is especially rewarding. Well designed items can be appreciated as objects in their own right, can turn chores into pleasures, can save time and can even save lives (by reducing the chance of serious error by the user).

    However, I’m surprised by your happiness at seeing the British 3-pin socket – I’m always slightly depressed when I find another country that has adopted it as a standard. In my opinion the British 3-pin plug is one of the worst items of design I have come across. Firstly it is dangerous – the fact that the cord is perpendicular to the pins means that if you trip over a cord, the plug won’t be pulled out of the socket – instead you fall over. The pins also form a hazard – have you ever trod on an upturned 3-pin plug while walking barefoot about the house? The plug does not support a small-sized unearthed variant (both European and American plugs have 2- and 3- pinned variants). The plug is bulky, which is mildly irritating in the home, but is a major inconvenience when traveling – adapters/chargers for phones, cameras laptops etc are bulky. And the standard is not even a comprehensive standard – in the UK, at least, a separate plug/socket combination is required for shavers.

  2. Pity you didn’t let us have the name of the hotel :-) Hotels, especially their own websites, could use a little link love.
    Martin – the physical size is dictated by the size of the internal fuse, which is the unique factor of UK plugs, this saves a fortune on building wiring costs as you can use a ring main rather than running cables from each socket back to a fuseboard.
    The bathroom design is deliberate so you cannot use regular appliances in the bathroom.

  3. Interesting — I’ve almost never seen the British-style plugs in Shanghai. The thing they do have here, which I had never seen before, are the plugs where each hole big, and the contacts inside fit a variety of different plugs, regardless of whether the pins are slanted, or round, or whatever. Very nice once you’ve been here for a while and your electronics are a mix of China and non-China bought.

  4. @Geoff, you say the UK plug “saves a fortune in wiring costs”. Well there’s two points there: firstly it’s a bad investment decision: you save a capital cost (cost of wiring building) at the expense of an ongoing cost (cost and inconvenience of plugs to all users of the building) and secondly it’s not a fortune but a small saving (especially relative to the overall cost of a building).

    On the point of bathroom appliances: the problem with the adopted solution is that it is impossible to use bathroom appliances in regular sockets. A better solution would have been to key the bathroom sockets (and the plugs for bathroom appliances) so that normal appliances could not be plugged into bathroom sockets and so that bathroom appliances could be plugged into normal sockets. For example you could have a protuberance between the holes in the bathroom socket and a corresponding indentation in the plug. Or you could have a raised ridge around the holes in the bathroom socket, so that only plugs of a certain shape could be inserted.

    I maintain that the designers of British plugs took a clumsy, brute-force approach to their design, and didn’t think through the wider-ranging impacts of their design. The British plug is ugly, inconvenient and a trip hazard.

  5. @Martin – The 13amp UK plug was a rationalisation of the old round pin 2A, 5A & 15A plugs that were around in my childhood (The 2A round plug lives on in the bathroom). I think 13A was deemed desirable to the large use of portable electric fires in the UK (Not having centrally heated homes!)
    The trip hazard was largely overcome by only having short cables attached to appliances and due to the economies of the ring main system :-) many sockets in each room!
    Having our unique design also helped the fortunes of our connector industry eg MK, Crabtree etc

  6. @Geoff – your last point hits the mark. The UK has often exercised a form of “protectionism by non-standardization”. The small-size golf ball, the BT phone jack, the bayonet light-bulb and the 13-amp plug being examples.

  7. It might be slightly off topic, but this power socket discussion is fascinating!
    For the record, I agree with Martin – the British plugs are horrible. (I quite like having a switch on every socket though… )

  8. @FND Good point about the switch. Another point remembering is that the UK is at 240V with respect to earth whereas the USA is 110V. So safety, particular with regard to earthing is a lot more valuable in the UK.
    @Martin I thought the light bulbs were more down to the rivalry and probably patents between Edison (Hence your fittings are Edison Screw) whereas here we had Swan and bayonets.

  9. I always enjoy going to Shanghai. And similarly enjoy finding an ethernet socket and not needing an adapter for my plug. But …. last time I was there the internet connection via the hotel’s ethernet jack was painfully slow. So slow in fact that I had to go to the office any time I wanted to use the internet. I guess a point is that design is important, but so is functionality.

    But perhaps your hotel has a better internet connection than mine did (apparently the ones that route via Hong Kong are better than the ones that route through China’s ISPs).

  10. @Geoff, from your comment “your fittings are Edison Screw”, I assume you think I am American. I’m not, I’m British. I’m critical of the British plug because I think it is a poor design. There are good British designs and poor ones, it’s important to criticize the poor ones so that we can learn from them.

  11. Typical JP! After all your cerebral posts, it’s the mention of a prosaic British plug that puts your comments into overdrive.

    In an attempt to bring the discussion back to your original design point, I would add to your conclusion a basic tenet of my philosophy. Namely that if you note when things have inconvenienced or irritated the user and then redesign them, you will achieve a very high user satisfaction.

    Don’t ask people what they want, you’ll get far too many answers – just “open-source” their grievances/complaints and you’ll make much quicker progress.

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