Photo cred: my dad.
It’s always dicey when nature calls and you’re far from home. Every public restroom may hide a horror––graffiti splattered across the mirror, floors slick with unidentifiable muck, empty soap dispensers.
But the greatest hidden horror of all is the man you catch in the most intimate act of excretion as you unwittingly fling his stall door open. He is looking up at you, eyes wide, pants around his ankles, boxers at his knees, utterly compromised, mouth agape and exclaiming, one hand reaching to yank the door closed, another perhaps covering his privates, every neuron in both of your brains firing no no no no no, the most synchronized any two brains ever have been or will be.
“Sorry!” you whimper, fleeing. You saw him for the briefest instant––virtually subliminal!––and yet your visual system, somehow sensing the forbiddeness of the image, encodes it permanently, enshrining it in the Museum of Terrible Things You Cannot Unsee And Yet You Must Remember Forever. You vow never to use any bathroom ever again.
It is 2022. We have mapped the genome, visited the moon, and defeated the Nazis (mostly), and yet we still occasionally walk in on each other in the bathroom. It does not have to be like this, and yet it is like this.
It’s not just bathrooms: bad design is everywhere. Norman Doors––the kind that fool you into pulling when you should push or pushing when you should pull––are still common nearly thirty years after a bestselling book pointed out their stupidity. My microwave beeps very loudly every 15 seconds once it finishes cooking; there’s no way to turn this feature off. Clothing tags tell you how to care for your garments in inscrutable hieroglyphics:
Ah, the universal symbol for “non-chlorine bleach when needed’
Pulling futilely at a Norman Door is more than annoying: it is a grim indication that we live in a world where good ideas lose. Some problems––like cold fusion––persist because we haven’t figured out the solutions yet. Some problems––like racism––persist because there are bad people or slow institutions or clashes of values. But some problems seem to persist for no good reason, which should make us all very worried. The world spends $2.2 trillion on research and development every year, and many smart scientists, engineers, and designers work hard every day trying to come up with new ideas. What if they succeed, but it all goes nowhere?
When we inadvertently open a door and see someone pooping, we could curse ourselves, the someone, the door, and the universe. Or we could ask: why? Why doesn’t good design replicate and dominate?
A standard economic answer would be that bad design survives and thrives whenever the incentives are all wrong. “People don’t pick buildings based on their bathrooms and doors,” the economists would point out. “That’s unfortunate, but we can take solace knowing that good design will flourish where it matters most.”
Public restrooms would probably be at least a little better if billions of dollars were on the line, but bad design still survives in high-stakes situations. Three Mile Island melted down because of some poorly labeled buttons. The Paducah (Kentucky) Fire Department used to respond constantly to false fire alarms because people mistook the alarm box for a mailbox. The Diesel clothing company would very much like to sell lots of underwear, and yet this is what their underwear display looks like:
So I am not convinced that bad design is merely a problem of incentives.
To understand a phenomenon, we should compare situations where the phenomenon occurs to situations where it doesn’t, and figure out what the difference is. Fortunately, there are plenty of places were good design seems to win. Superior technology tends to displace inferior technology, which is why nobody commutes to work via zeppelin, steam engine, or penny farthing. So how come we can ditch silly airships but we can’t ditch dumb doors?
The answer, I think, is that design involves both technological engineering and psychological engineering, and psychological engineering is harder. Doors don’t often fall off their hinges, get stuck, or snap in half––all feats of technological engineering. They do often lock accidentally, set off unintended alarms, and mislead people about how to open them––all failures of psychological engineering. Similarly, the problems with public bathrooms are rarely due to poor tech: the toilets flush, the lights turn on, the faucets dispense clean water. Graffiti, grime, and a lack of privacy are all issues that arise from improper psychological engineering.
It’s easy to spot technological engineering problems and it’s easy to know when we’ve solved them, which is why technological engineering tends to get better and the best tends to spread. Everybody wants products to be faster, lighter, cheaper, more efficient, and more durable. Each of those problems can be assigned a number––speed, weight, price, energy usage, number of malfunctions––and then engineers can get to work trying to improve one of those numbers at minimum cost to the others. Iterating that process can eventually turn “boneshakers” into “safety bicycles”, which we now just call “bicycles.”
Psychological engineering problems, on the other hand, are hard to spot. We all share the same laws of physics, so the technological engineering that works for me will also work for you. But we don’t share the same minds, so the psychological engineering that works for me may only work for me. Door designers know immediately when their doors fall off the hinges, but they don’t know when their doors are counterintuitive because they know exactly how their doors work and it’s hard to imagine not knowing––psychologists call this the curse of knowledge. The only way designers can undo the curse is to observe people trying to open their doors, and that may never happen; by the time the doors are installed, the door designers are off designing other doors.
Once spotted, psychological engineering problems are tricky to solve. Unlike battery life or fire resistance, “intuitiveness" is hard to quantify and thus hard to optimize. The fundamental attribution error leads us to blame design failures on stupid people rather than stupid products. We end up with lots of instruction manuals, which are attempts at enlightening the idiots who don’t know how to use the microwave or open the door, rather than attempts at designing microwaves and doors that even idiots could use.
Even worse, taking one perspective is hard enough, but psychological engineering requires you to take several. Bathrooms should be wheelchair accessible and easy to clean, but designers are probably not going to invite people who use wheelchairs to test out their bathrooms, nor are they going to try scrubbing behind the toilets.
Anyone who can overcome these challenges is rewarded with indifference. Psychological engineering problems are hard to spot in the first place, so people rarely notice when you solve them. People hate pushing a pull door, but they don’t think at all when they push a push door. Unlike technological engineering, which can be explained and sold (“This car gets 55 miles to the gallon!”) and thus copied and improved, good psychological engineering melts into the background.
The good designs that don’t spread, then, are probably solving psychological engineering problems. Technological engineering marches ever forward, which is why the next phone you get will be slimmer and faster and last longer on a single charge. Psychological engineering remains stuck, which is why the next building you enter will probably be full of Norman Doors.
Is there any way to spread good psychological engineering?
Noticing it, buying it, and hyping it would all help. So would teaching design in school and spending some time on r/CrappyDesign.
But good design can’t be explained; it must be experienced. That’s why what we really need is a Museum of Psychological Engineering where people could immerse themselves in the delicious joy of good design. This would be nothing like the museums of design we have now, which are places where you go to stand near weird furniture or stroll past pictures of birds or look at old pots in a gallery named after the people who caused the opioid crisis.
(This Museum of Design, which is the third result when I googled “museum of design," is especially egregious. I can’t figure out where it’s located! Seriously, click on the About page [notice that the text highlights when you scroll over it but it’s not a hyperlink]––where is this thing? Does it even exist? Maybe I could learn more on the Visit page…nope, it leads me back to the About page! Is it defunct? Is it a big joke?)
In the MuPE, every door shows you exactly how you should interact with it. Queues are perfectly designed so waiting in line is painless. You get to interact with tons of bad designs––remote controls, office chairs, moving vans––and then you get to see the versions that have solved the psychological engineering problems and go “ahh that’s so much better." There should be a room where you can design something in real time and watch people interact with it, just to see how hard psychological engineering is. And yes, going to the bathroom would be a dream, and nobody would ever walk in on someone pooping.
If you did this right, you could support the whole place with the proceeds from the gift shop alone, because once people understand how wonderful good design feels, they’ll be willing to shell out major bucks for it. But more importantly, spending time in the MuPE would change lives. People would zip home to redesign their kitchens. Grocery store managers would rearrange their queue systems. If the MuPE employed consultants, I would pay thousands of dollars for one to follow me around for a day and help me think about all the psychological engineering problems I’ve left unaddressed in my own life.
The MuPE is merely a dream for now, and we’re all stuck in a world full of stubborn psychological engineering problems. So the next time you accidentally walk in on someone in the bathroom, instead of screaming and running away, may I suggest that you calmly take out your phone and read them this post from beginning to end, and then encourage them to like, share, and subscribe.