Saturday, 21 February 2009

Shape sorters are wonderful

Small children often have those clever little toys where they have to push different shapes through holes in the side of a container. Each hole is cunningly crafted so only the right shape can be passed through. If a toy designer can manage this trick, why can't car manufacturers?

The reason I ask is because I did something very stupid yesterday. I was on the way to give a seminar in Manchester. Quite near my destination, with plenty of time, I thought I'd fill up the car with fuel, so I could head off straight for home after the lunchtime event. Thinking through my presentation, I went through those habitual motions of pumping 40 litres of petrol into the tank. As I put the nozzle back in its holster, my stomach seemed to drop out of my body. The car I'd just filled up with 40 litres of lead-free petrol was a diesel car.

The strangest moment of that day was going to pay for the petrol that I neither wanted nor could use. It just seemed really weird.

As it happened, for a disaster, it all worked out quite well. The seminar was for a police force, who were able to get me off the motorway service station to the location and back using the service entrance, cutting a great chunk off the time it would have taken otherwise. The AA were brilliant, turning up on time and taking me to a garage that pumped out the tank. Okay, I lost about 3 hours and a bit of cash for the pump-out, but it could have been a lot worse. And everyone was really nice about it, not laughing at me at all, really.

I was stupid. I was distracted. But I'm still inclined to blame the car makers. If the manufacturer of a child's toy can design something with five different shapes that won't go in the other holes, why couldn't they have set a standard for filling tanks with nozzles that similarly won't go in the wrong type of tank? It would have been trivial. But bad design has let stupidity like mine flourish. Both the AA man and the garage said they deal with at least three cases a week. Good design should make the default action the right action. That's certainly not the case here.

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