As a UX researcher, I tend to evaluate all of my technology interactions. This kicked into high gear recently during a hotel stay. While the check-in process was straightforward; the elevator made me pause to think. Likely every elevator you’ve ever encountered has two buttons in the lobby area: Up and Down. Once you get in the elevator, you have a button dedicated to every floor at which the elevator stops. This elevator instead featured a number pad in the lobby for you to enter your destination, the accompanying screen told you which of the six elevators you should take, and once inside the elevator, you were greeted with a blank panel that usually is occupied by the individual floor buttons.
I was able to use the elevator without much issue; however, in the three days I was at the hotel, at least five other patrons asked me how it worked. After helping each of these people, I couldn’t help but think that the company that thought of this type of control panel (called a “destination dispatch”), while having the best of intentions in terms of efficiently moving people to different floors, had missed the boat in terms of properly managing its users’ expectations. This radical change to the elevator’s control panel, which has remained largely the same for several decades, left users confused at best and frustrated at worst.
Design changes for most products are not this radical and instead usually consist of small, incremental modifications over time. Iteration A might look a lot like iteration B, and B might be pretty similar to C. As a product progresses from A to B to C, proper user testing can inform the designers which changes work and which do not. Over time, regardless of user testing, iteration A might be completely unrecognizable when compared to iteration Z. And this is what this elevator control panel was: a straight jump from A to Z seemingly without thought of how the user would react.
Sometimes a radical redesign of a familiar product is needed. The iPhone, for example, was not the first touchscreen smartphone but it nonetheless revolutionized the mobile sector after its release. Part of what made it so successful was that it was easy for most people to comprehend as soon as they picked it up and started using it. Apple knew that the user experience was paramount and strived to optimize that experience wherever possible.
Of course, an elevator control panel is not quite the same as a smartphone, but the ideas of managing user expectations and providing a good user experience cut across both. Whether the changes for a product are incremental from version A to B or revolutionary from version A to Z, the user should be involved in the design process to ensure those changes support user behavior.