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Designing better call boxes

Everything about a call box’s design is wrong

  1. The call box isn’t conveniently placed. It’s in the atrium of the building, which is behind a locked door. This means that you need to have a key for the property before you can get to the call box, which defeats the purpose of the call box to allow visitors to be buzzed into the property.
  2. The residents’ names are listed terribly. Because the property management office usually enters their names, they’re often the residents’ legal names as it would appear on the lease. This is a problem if you’re trying to visit Bob, but his name is legally Robert, or Rob, or even Bobert. On top of that, sometimes properties will list names as ‘first initial last name’, which really helps when you’re trying to work out if “R. Miller” is Bob Miller or not.
  3. On top of that, you have to scroll through the names, one at a time. Instead of giving you a normal keyboard, you get an “A” button, a “Z” button, and a “CALL” button. You have to manually press through every. single. resident. to get to the first letter you want. And it makes a terrible noise. If the property’s call box doesn’t start at “A” but decided to help you out by starting at the middle letters “M” or “N”, that’s usually when you find out that Bob’s legal name isn’t Robert, it’s actually Bob — and never forget it.
  4. You get a number keypad that’s absolutely useless. There’s a good chance that residents use something other than the call box to enter the building anyway (see point 1). This means the only use of the keypad is to enter your host’s call extension. To find out what the extension is, you have to scroll through the resident list (see point 3), at which point the call box usually just tells you to push “CALL” anyway and it’ll dial the extension for you. And because you have better things to remember than your co-worker Bob’s three-digit home call box extension, you’re not going to recall the extension the next time you visit.
  5. Finally, the call box doesn’t work. You finally found the listing for “Robert Miller” in the call box’s directory, so you push “CALL”. The call box rings for a few seconds as if it’s making a call, and then disconnects suddenly.

At this point, you pull out your phone, call Bob, and tell him you’re downstairs. You also mention that you tried his call box. He tells you the stupid thing has never worked.

How can we do better?

  1. Build a call box with a QWERTY keypad that asks you to type in the first few letters of the resident’s name, then offer suggestions accordingly.
  2. Allow residents to change their displayed names and include alternative names through an online portal.
  3. Verify the call box is installed in a location where visitors can approach it without needing a key.

Alternatively:

  1. Ban apartment buildings and require everyone to live in single-family homes.

By Leo Ji

software engineer and news nerd