Becoming a Designer is Ruining Me

I’m at a national youth ministry conference this weekend. I love coming to this event because I get to meet passionate youth workers and reconnect with friends whom I see only once or twice a year. The schedule is a bit ridiculous because when youth ministers put together an event, the formal event activities run from before 8am to nearly midnight, with social time following the closing events. (These must be the same people who organize lock-ins.)

The one down side I’m experiencing during this event has happened because I’m in design school right now. We’re studying service design and also learning practices to develop empathy for participants in a service or system and ways to prototype and test ideas to make sure the outcome addresses the users’ needs. As part of this, Jon Kolko has challenged us to start noticing the designed elements in our everyday lives: The materials in a pen that affect the way we use it. The buttons on software applications that indicate whether you’ve activated a button or switch. The details we take for granted when they work well and that aggravate us to no end when they don’t fit our mental models.

Now I’m thinking about design in new ways, and I can’t turn off this way of seeing the world around me. Frankly, it’s a little irritating because I see problems and broken stuff everywhere. Some experiences in the last day:

  • I can never successfully swap calls when I’m leaving a voicemail and the person calls me back mid-message. (I’m pretty sure the voicemail usually ends 10 awkward seconds of silence or “Hello? Are you there?” before I realize I’ve hung up the real call and am still recording.)
  • I had to ask four people directions to the hotel registration area because I parked in the adjoining conference center and could not figure out where the bridgeway was or which escalators to use.
  • The light switch in my hotel room is so aggravating! For some reason, this double switch plate controls the room’s lights–AND the bathroom light. I’m used to switching on a light when I enter a room, so every time I walk in the bathroom and shut the door, I get have to walk out and flip on the light. (And if I were staying here with high school youth, I can just imagine how many kids would end up showering in the dark when a roommate flipped the switch on them–accidentally or intentionally.)
Why is my hotel bathroom light switch OUTSIDE the bathroom door?

Yes, I know the inconvenience of a poorly-placed light switch isn’t a wicked problem. However, it’s been a little reminder to my budding designer that the decisions we make–intentionally or unintentionally–impact the interactions people have with their environments and one another. Our designs have consequences.

* Gah! In the middle of writing this post, I went to refill my water class and ONCE AGAIN groped the textured wallpaper before remembering there wasn’t a plastic plate nearby.

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