Category: Design


I stand beside my car, melting in the heat as I press the button for the doors to unlock.  No response from the car, no click of locks, no flash of headlights in acknowledgement of my signal.  I just changed the battery–or had it changed, since it was not at all obvious how to get at the battery–yesterday.  Is the freshly-purchased battery bad?  Well, it’s not a major problem.  I hold the keys in my hand, and there is a keyhole in the door.

BLAT!

Startled, I jump back as my car’s anti-theft alarm goes off.  The horn honks frantically, the headlights blink, I stand staring at my suddenly rebellious car.  It’s my car, the key unlocked the door, why is the blasted thing suddenly acting as if I were trying to steal it?  How do I turn the blaring sound off?  I try climbing into the overheated interior and starting the car–it won’t start.  I walk around it, again thumbing the keyless system.  No response.  Only continued loud embarrassment.

A cyclist rides up, looking amused.  I try to defend myself.  “I don’t know why it’s acting this way.  All I did is unlock the door of my car!”

Luckily, I don’t look like a car thief.  I look like what I am, the stereotypical little old lady in tennis shoes, with a name badge proclaiming that I am on campus legitimately.  “Get in and turn the key on and off five times,” he advises, and it works.  The blaring stops.  When I stammer my thanks, he comments that he heard the car clear across the lot and it happens all the time, then waves and rides off.

Later I drive by the dealership, certain something is wrong with the car.  The keyless entry of course works perfectly for the dealer.  “Just make sure you press the button hard,” he advises loftily. No, there is no way to turn off the anti-theft system.  The car is working correctly; it seems the manufacturers prefer that customers use the keyless feature.  What happens if the batteries go dead?  “Keep fresh batteries in the remote.”  Interesting that they gave me more keys than remotes.  And the only new thing I learn is that it only takes three times turning the key on and off in the ignition to silence the alarm in my new car.

If it’s that simple, and that widely known–remember it was a cyclist who first gave me the information–then any competent car thief surely knows how to turn off the alarm.  Just use whatever he used to turn the lock in the door to turn the ignition on and off–probably much faster than I did.  Bystanders are unlikely to interfere, especially if the nuisances go off all the time.  Car thieves don’t necessarily look like car thieves; some may even be little old ladies in tennis shoes.  So what is the use of having an anti-theft alarm that goes off if you use the key to open the door?
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The “perversity of inanimate objects?”  Not exactly.  When was the last time you considered a rock, a stick, even a tree, perverse?  Annoying at times, even maddening, but not really perverse.  That particular adjective is most often applied to made objects.  Objects that are designed by human beings.

I am convinced that the inventors of Superman got Clark Kent’s profession wrong.  He wasn’t a reporter; he was a designer–and a rather thoughtless designer, at that.  One is expected to fly to the ceiling to change the batteries in a smoke alarm, and use X-ray vision to see how the battery is to be replaced.  X-ray vision would also be useful in tracing the wiring of the anti-theft system, and great strength would have allowed me to open a glass jar of pickles in less than the three days it took.
More realistically, product designers act as if everyone were six feet tall, possessed of perfect vision and hearing, superstrength, and had an average body shape.  Oh, and live in an average climate.  That covers very few of us who actually use their gadgets.

Take climate.  I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the first new car I bought was the year the law required that the car wouldn’t start unless the driver was wearing a seat belt.  If the driver’s weight came on the seat and the seat belt catch did not report it was closed, a loud alarm blared inside the car.  No problem, I thought.  I always used seat belts.  My father drilled holes in the frame of our old Woody to put in seat belts.  That is, no problem until a Fairbanks winter.  Then I discovered that the sensor that told the car that the seat belt was fastened quit working when the temperature of the car’s interior was below zero °F.  I was a lot younger then, and I could still start the car by bracing my shoulders against the seat back and my feet against the floor. But the instant my weight hit the brittle plastic of the seats, the alarm started blaring.  The cacophony continued until the car interior warmed to above zero, and when it was forty below outside–common that winter–it never got that warm inside the car.  Since it was illegal for the dealer to disconnect the thing, and I didn’t know how, it blared continuously every time I drove anywhere.  If a siren or the horn of another car had sounded, I’d never have heard it–what was intended as a safety device was anything but.  I can blame Congress for that one, but it was the design of the implementation that was faulty.

(Congress is also responsible for my washing machine.  To save energy, they have made a hot-water wash with a warm rinse nearly impossible, forgetting that powdered “cold-water” detergents are not designed to work with cold water half a degree above freezing.)

Good design includes the idea that it should be possible to use an object for its intended purpose.

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Cheep.
Did I hear something?  The clock radio is on, news of Iraq, of Afghanistan, music…  I drift back toward sleep.
Cheep.
Could the radio have a beep in the program?  Not likely.  My insulin pump?  It doesn’t quite sound like the familiar warning, but I grope the pump out, thumb the button.  No warning, only the sensor showing my blood sugar—normal—for the last three hours.
Cheep.
This time I listen, look around, consider possibilities.  Wristwatches—possible, but not likely.  I haven’t moved any in months.  Pedometers, ditto.  I can rule out a cell phone, at least I think I can—mine hasn’t been used for a couple of years and must be totally discharged by now.
Cheep.
I look around the bedroom.  The older Sheltie, whose hearing is almost gone, snoozes; the younger, the one whose rear end is nearly paralyzed, shifts and whines nervously in her crate.  The KUAC posters and the arrangement of artificial flowers in a gift basket hang as usual on the white walls, and in any event are not subject to bouts of cheeping.  The radio…  Come to think about it, I once traced a cheep to another clock radio, in another room.  But that was an inadvertently set clock chime, once an hour, on a clock that I have not managed to set since I lost the instructions.  And that radio is not in this room—is this sound?  I look at the closed wooden door to the hall as another cheep sounds.
It’s time to get up in any event; might as well open the door and see if I can locate the sound.  I struggle out of bed and hobble over to the door.  Of course whatever it is isn’t cheeping just now.  I close the door and care for the dogs and myself, trying to ignore the cheeps.
They are definitely louder in the hall, but the cheeps are too brief to locate.  I call the older dog to the kitchen door, at the other end of the hall.  Uncharacteristically, the younger leads him, so eager to get out into the run she almost trips me.  I work my way back down the hall, waiting for the cheeps and trying to judge where they are loudest.  Near the door to the office, I think.  That narrows it down to the uninterruptible power supplies, neither of which shows a warning light, and the smoke alarms.  Probably one of the smoke alarms saying it needs its backup battery replaced, but which?  The one in the hall, or the one four feet away in the office?  In either case, I will need the stepladder–both alarms are on the ceiling, far above my reach.  Do I even have the right kind of battery?
I drag the stepladder in from the garage, and call the dogs in for their breakfasts.  The younger dog clings to my ankles, clearly demoralized by the cheeping.  I finally shut her in the back room, stand in the hall under the smoke alarms, and shut the office door.
Cheep.  But it’s softer this time, so the smoke alarm in the office is probably the culprit.  Now all I have to do is remember how to change the battery without the instructions the previous house owners took with them.
Just climbing the stepladder is a problem, with a bad knee and an impaired sense of balance.  I manage to unscrew the alarm from the ceiling, where it hangs from the house wiring.  I see something I think is the battery compartment, but how does it open?  The instructions, if they are instructions, are molded into the white plastic over my head.  Have you ever tried to read small, faint print, over your head, through bifocals, while trying to balance on a stepladder?  I finally give up and try Googling the brand name on the Internet.  All I can find out is that my smoke alarm is so old it should have been replaced.
Cheep.  The last time this happened, I wound up breaking the battery connections and had to replace the alarm.  As long as I don’t electrocute myself, I can’t do any worse this time.  And if I break this one, I’ll have the electrician replace all of them with models I can replace the battery in.  I climb the stepladder again, the good leg always higher, determined to find that battery.
The compartment cover won’t come off as I pry at the edges, but pulling at the place where the wires go into it seems to have some effect.  I persist, working awkwardly over my head, teetering on the ladder, until the cover finally gives and I see the 9 volt battery with its silly little snaps.  Carefully I pry the snaps off the battery, still reaching awkwardly over my head–this is how the other battery connection got broken, with one of the snaps coming off the connector rather than off the battery.  Success!  Now if only the replacement battery I’ve found is good…
It takes both hands to fasten the snaps on the new battery, while I teeter on the stepladder.  I hold my breath, waiting for another cheep to tell me that the new battery is dead or that the sound was coming from somewhere else.  Blessed silence.  Even the dogs seem to draw a breath of relief.
Now all I have to do is get the wires tucked back into a too-small space and screw the wretched smoke alarm back into the ceiling.