Power Users Use Power Better

(October 12, 2007)

Here's a question for you: Why aren't more things in life two-tiered, so as to cater to the masses and to power users? There's no law that says a complex object can't be user-friendly, nor that a straightforward object can't contain multiple layers of functionality. I believe in the glory of clean design, but don't think it demands that our constructs have to cater to the lowest common denominator.

I am referring, of course, to the elevators in my building. I live in an eight-storey low-rise, and it has six units per floor; assuming an average occupency of two people per apartment, that's a total of just under one hundred tenants. Given that there are two elevators, and given that most of the people here are young professionals or wizened old crones whose bones would fuse together if they didn't move them every morning, it is likely that I will encounter someone else on whichever lift comes to get me on any given day. Since the only reason I am taking the elevator is that I have my bicycle with me, this poses a problem: I end up hiding down the hall so that my would-be partner in descent won't feel compelled to share a very small space with me and my sixty pounds of awkwardly-sized steel. This is both socially feeble and chronologically illogical, and there must be a better way.

The way it works is that if there is an elevator already in motion below the fifth or sixth floor when I press the button (usually about fifty times, because I'm manic like that), it is queued to stop when it reaches me. This leaves the other elevator at the ground floor, waiting for people coming in from the lobby, or up near the eighth, where it was left by its last rider. While this is usually the most efficient way to do things, there are instances in which it isn't - such as when I have my bicycle, or when someone is dragging luggage downstairs. Someone who just woke up with a terrible hangover and is taking out their empty beer cans while still reeking of vomit and/or sex would also fall into this category, because I don't want to ride with him or her and neither do you.

So why not program the elevator-control system to accept more signals than just "start moving" and "stop here?" As an example, if I wanted to summon an empty elevator rather than the most accessible one, I might tap the button in a specific sequence, one which was long enough that it'd be hard to press by accident - something like -tap tap pause tap-. It might take longer for the elevator to reach me (if, for example, a moving one were at the third floor and an empty one were at the seventh), but its code would understand that efficiency is not always the top priority. I can think of other useful sequences, too - one to send an elevator downstairs without coming to my floor first, so that it's waiting for me when I have to bring something back up, another to make an elevator wait at my floor (sending the other in its place if someone presses his or her button, even if their relative positions would make that less efficient) so that I can dart back into my apartment to grab something I've forgotten.

Almost any object could be made smarter and more effective, now that we're in the age of transistors 'n microchips 'n stuff. And in addition to helping improve their functionality, increased "intelligence" would add a wonderful bit of mystery to objects - I don't know about you, but I love the idea of discovering new facets of a well-known item that reveal options previously unimagined. You might meet a Decrepit Elevator Guru, or decide to purchase a 1987 Elevator Operators' Manual, or just begin to push buttons at random to see what they do, and the magic (or blue smoke) would flow out...