Suicide Doors, Coke Machines and Touchscreens: A look at industrial design

I first became interested in industrial design upon learning of “suicide doors.” Early cars were often designed with doors that hinged behind the passenger. On one hand, this was an excellent design: it allowed passengers to enter and exit vehicles with great ease. However, there was one major flaw. In the event of an emergency exit, the doors would catch and drag the passenger. Hence the name: “suicide doors.”

1937 Chrysler Plymouth with rear "suicide doors."

Today, there are numerous examples of “suicide door” designs, i.e. grand intentions but disastrous flaws. There are also designs that are so simple and obvious that you find yourself scratching your head and wondering: “Why did it take XYZ company so long to come up with this?”

Below are two designs that gave me pause. As I spot more designs, I’ll share them here as an ongoing series. Please send me any design examples that you feel deserve mention in the either the Hall of Fame or Hall of Shame.

Coca-Cola Vending Machine: A simple design shift reduces motion and prevents you from forgetting change

A few weeks ago, a new vending machine was delivered to my office. It seemed like a standard vending machine: seven-ish feet tall, glowing lights, the constant hum of a refrigeration motor.

This machine, however, had a minor modification. Typically, vending machines collect money and dispense change in the same area: the right side about 5 feet from the floor. The two functions – taking money and giving change – are similar so it is logical that they be placed in the same vicinity, right? Not necassarily, as this machine proves.

In the new machine, the change and the soda are dispensed in the same area. The benefits are less movement and a lower chance of forgetting your change. Under the old design: you insert your money, chose your soda, collect your soda, and then return to to “money area” to collect your change. The new design completely removes the last movement of returning to the “money area” because the collecting the soda and the change movement are integrated into one. This is a 25% reduction in movement. A web or mobile designer that reduces the number of clicks to make a purchase by 25% would be considered a rock star.

In summary, the key lesson from the Coke machine is that similar functions do not need to be performed in the same physical area.

A vending machine design that places the change dispenser near the soda dispenser, which reduces movement by 25%.

Touchscreens on Headrests: Or how I tried to relax while someone played Tetris on the back of my skull.

No one can complain about personal televisions on airplanes. Good riddance to the days of being forced to watch such classics as Flubber or Legally Blonde 2.* Welcome to a world of live television and on demand movies.

The design, however, fails in the way passengers operate the televisions. Some – not all – airlines have adopted touchscreens. The benefit of the touchscreen is that the airline does not need to install and maintain separate remotes. The disadvantage – the “suicide door” if you will – is that the touchscreen is directly in back of the person sitting in front of you. Every channel change or volume adjustments results in a slight but agitating tap to the back of the head. The problem is exacerbated by two factors: first, people unfamiliar with touchscreens who do not realize you just have to gently tap, not violently push; and the introduction of touch-based video games.

In summary, well designed products and solutions cannot adversely affect others. I call this the “secondhand smoke test” or “libertarian test.” Whatever name you chose, airplanes with touchscreen televisions flunk.

Televisions with touchscreens on airplanes fail the "secondhand" or "libertarian" test.

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