Friday, June 1, 2018

The Elevator and Me

Picture this.

You get on an elevator, another person or two gets on, and you go ahead and hit the button for the floor that you want to head to.  You wait for the doors to close as you stand there on board, and you are the closest person to the control panel for the elevator.

Just as the doors start to close, though, someone approaches the elevator wanting to get in before the doors close.  You want to help -- it's an older person you want to allow to get on, or an attractive lady, or someone you know.  Or, better than all of those, you're just a good person who wants to help a fellow human being.

So you turn quickly to the control panel with barely a second to spare before the doors close.  And what do you see?  Well, you see the mess that I saw on Wednesday (pictured here for your convenience) when the exact same situation happened to me, in my case an elderly couple moving toward the elevator in a building mostly occupied by doctors' offices.

Being a good guy, I wanted to let the couple get on board the elevator car, right?  So I turn to the control panel looking for the button to open the doors.  Now, the proper button was the unlit button to the right of the icon with the two filled-in triangles pointing left and right.  Not, mind you, the button with the icon itself, which I tried to hit first, but the button to its right, the round silver one with no words on it.

So the sequence was:
(1) Look at the control panel desperately for a button that would open the door
(2) Panic when the English words "Open Door" did not appear anywhere
(3) See the two icons
(4) Try to figure out which one translated as "open door"
(5) Recognize that the one with the outward-pointing triangles was "open door"
(6) Hit that icon
(7) Realize it wasn't an actual operating button
(8) Spot the button to its right and figure that it must be the one
(9) Hit it

The good news is that all of that took place in about two seconds, which was fortunately enough to catch the doors in time for the couple to make it on the elevator.  But that is only because the door had just barely started closing when I spotted them.  Had the doors been just a tad faster, or if I had realized just a second later that the couple wanted to get, I would not have gotten the doors open, I would have felt terrible, and the other passengers would have thought ill of me.

I can tell you that this has happened to you, because it has happened to me so often that I can assume it is a frequent occurrence for all of us.  But the pictured control panel is in a modern building with a modern elevator, which means that the elevator industry has not done a blessed thing to address the problem, and people are scrambling in every elevator in Christendom.

Now, I will point out that part of the problem is that the icon for "Open Doors" is not intuitive, at least to me.  I've sort of gotten used to it, but not when I'm in a hurry -- and I've opened literally thousands of elevator doors in my life.  It doesn't look like a door, and the triangles don't come across like directional arrows at first glance.

So some years ago, I applied for a utility patent.  My point was that the only time that anyone needed to hit an elevator button in a big hurry was when you needed to open the door.  And when you did need to open the door in a hurry, part of the process was translating that particular control panel -- they are all different, you know -- to figure out what button you needed to hit.

That part, the deciphering the panel, was the problem.  So I put together a design that involved a big, red mechanical button -- bigger than all the others and a bright color -- with the words "OPEN DOOR" in big letters.  Anyone who turned quickly to a control panel needing to find the "Open" button would have their eyes drawn to it.  They would know to hit that button and could do so almost without thinking.  Get it?  Without thinking!

Then I contacted the people at Otis Elevators, the most famous, if not largest, elevator company.  I described my design, and asked if they were interested in licensing the design from me for their elevators.  I offered them the possibility of an exclusive use of the concept, and explained the utility.

I must have had a dozen emails back and forth with those people.  At first, they insisted that I turn over all rights to the concept to them before discussing anything further.  Then they modified that by insisting that I turn over all rights to the concept before discussing anything further, but using different words to say the same thing.

Ultimately I told them to go pound salt in their upper-floor ears.  And now their elevators, like everyone else's, are still designed so it is hard to find the right button when you need to open the doors in a hurry.  Good for you, Otis.

Some day, someone will buy off on the idea and I'll be able to retire.  But for now, if I am walking briskly toward your elevator with the doors close, use that weird icon with the triangles.

And if it is I at the controls and you don't quite make it, please forgive me.  I tried.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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