You pressed the Fn button, didn't you?

I was in a petrol station yesterday, filling up. When I got to the till, I did the usual business with the card machine, pushing the card into the slot, punching in my PIN and pressing Enter. Nothing happened. I must have look puzzled, staring rather blankly at the keypad. The salesperson smiled at me benignly.

'You pressed the Fn button, didn't you?' she said. 'I don't know why it's there, it doesn't do anything.'

I peered at the pad. Most chip and pin keypads are laid out pretty much the same. Numbers in a block at the top, Enter (or OK) key - the one you have to press to make a transaction - at the bottom right. But on this particular pad, Enter was second from the right. The rightmost key was this functionless Fn button.

This is a wondrous example of a designer not thinking through the way a product is used. When it's something as ubiquitous as a keypad we don't really think too much about what we're doing, it's mostly automatic. So it really throws the user if you mess around with the position of something that has to be pressed every time like the Enter key. I can guarantee that loads of people press the Fn button instead. The salesperson knew this. The designer was, simply, incompetent.

It reminds me of one more example of designers not thinking through the use of a simple item they designed. A door. How can you get a door wrong? Quite easily. One of the classic ways to do this is to make an all-glass door with no push plates and no obvious hinges. So you don't know which side it opens. But I've watched an even better example in action, infallibly tripping up users.

This was in the BA headquarters building Waterside, built about 10 years ago. It's beautifully designed with a sweeping interior street, pavement cafes, all the goodies of a modern, well-thought out office complex. And then they let the door designer loose.

A big failing of many designers is a love of symmetry. This one had designed beautiful high wooden doors for the entrance to the toilets. And to keep them nice and symmetrical he had put a long pull handle on both sides of the door. But this door had to be pushed from the outside to open it. I have watched person after person walk up to this door, pull the handle, fail to get in and then push. Even if there was a person in front of them making the same mistake, they would probably still do it.

Okay it's not major. Just a minor irritation in life. But it could have been avoided. If the designer had specified a push plate on the outside instead of a pull handle, everyone would know what to do. Trivial for the designer, but many, many instance of minor irritation arising from a lack of thinking it through. I wonder if (s)he went on from designing doors to designing keypads...

Image from Wikipedia


  1. Reminds me of Ben Elton's 'Academy of Crap Design' (might not be quite right)


Post a Comment