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Disorderly conduct (also known as innovation)

January 13, 2005 6 comments

It’s hard to imagine the typical city planner or architect anticipating this:

The rather dull scene in this picture is a parking lot with a building and a fenced-in power substation.  Behind your view is a large dormitory.  On the other side of those obstacles is an apartment building, a Baskin Robbins, a McDonald’s and a popular coffee shop.  So a lot of people have to get past the building and the power station.

In the colored section of the photo there’s a large shipping container – the kind you see on trains or ships.  And between the shipping container and the chain-link fence is a 22-inch space unevenly bisected lengthwise by a curb.  You wouldn’t think many people would walk the forty-foot length of such an odd space…
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… when they could just walk around the building.  But these footprints in the snow reveal just one hour’s traffic on a day when not even all the students are back from break yet.  What gives?

The block is fully equipped with sidewalks, and it’s a real balancing act to walk through the narrow, uneven space.  Since the curb isn’t centered in the space, they usually have to bump their shoulders against the ribbed shipping container as they walk.  But it saves perhaps a minute and scores of people squeeze through every day.  It’s common for there to be mini traffic-jams in the little space.  They’ve been doing it for years.

Society is full of official and unofficial rule-makers who don’t like disorderly solutions.  Walk on the sidewalk!  Cross at the crosswalk!  Don’t go through there – you might twist your ankle and sue us!  And the power company, well they’re downright paranoid about people getting too close to their fences.  But a large percentage of people ignore them.  We can loosely think of these as innovators.

You see this all the time on campuses and shopping areas.  Someone has carefully drawn a sidewalk plan, but you can clearly see paths in the grass or snow where people found their own shortest path.  Then the authorities put up little fences to protect the grass, and a smaller percentage hop over them.  Finally they double-fence both sides of the impromptu path and reduce walking to almost zero. Victory!

Why not wait six months to put in the sidewalk and then put it where the paths obviously are?  A little mud right at the beginning and then years and years of smooth efficiency.

Call it user-testing for the physical world.  Watch people as they interact with your pride and joy and realize – if a large percentage don’t use it the way you expect, you, not the users, are at fault.  It works for doors, coffee makers, lightswitches – anything we feel we have the wisdom to design.

Uh-oh… hope some pointy-headed pencil pusher doesn’t see this and harrumph that people should be kept from taking shortcuts!  They’d rather inconvenience hundreds of people every day than let people find a way that doesn’t fit their plan.

Categories: Design