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.
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Human centered design

I was having a perfectly delightful conversation with a Northwestern undergraduate manufacturing and design engineer about the faculty in the Segal Design Institute when he dropped a sentence: “So when I was taking Human-Centered Design with him last year — ”

“Excuse me – what?!”

“Yes?”

“Human-centered design?” I said. “As opposed to what other kind of design?



Since my only exposure to design as a profession had been through the Segal Design Institute, it baffled me that design could be about anything other than humans.

It turns out, according to this junior in MADE, that Segal is unusual in its heavy focus on human-centered design; there are other design philosophies, he explained, such as manufacturing-centered design – which focuses on designing for the manufacturing process as opposed to the end user’s experience.

“But what,” I ranted, “is the point of design if it doesn’t make people happy?”

This used to be an image of the McCormick School of Engineering’s new branding. Now it’s Segal’s own branding.

Design is a new concept for me, but the philosophies and basis underlying design thinking are much more familiar. Some of today’s design innovation finds its roots in industrial engineering, which my father teaches at another university; other parts of design innovation, such as “understanding human behavior,” falls out of a combination of my journalism studies and my mother’s teachings on how to be a decent human being.

So I don’t know how to feel about the concept of designing for anything other than humans. With few exceptions, nothing we create as a species is intended for anyone – or anything – other than ourselves. Our failure to contain the environmental crisis known as climate change is a testament to our self-centered focus.

(One notable exception is the Voyager Golden Records, specifically intended for an audience other than humans; and we spent forever designing those records to inform another intelligent life form, without knowing what communication media were even available.)

And so the technologies and processes we use to make today’s products and services are supposed to serve people, not the other way around.

The processes we design and build with new technologies have always been about people. We may have shifted the predominant written media from parchment to paper to typewriters to computers to the Internet, but fundamentally we have been serving other people with our writing (by informing them) as opposed to the technologies that enable our communication.

I feel that designing for anything other than humans leads to a failure of design. When you don’t design for the human experience, then you may as well have not bothered to design at all.