LJ Idol Exhibit B |week 8, 1 | 1381 words
A few months ago, my father related some anecdote from when I was twelve. He'd been about to take the car into the shop to have the doors cleaned out, but first showed me the clogged hole in each one.
"Look at how they made this," I apparently had said. "This groove outside the window sends rainwater and dirt into the holes and plugs them up, instead of sending them toward the ground."
"That's when I knew you were going to be an engineer," he concluded (completely forgetting about my entire first-career detour through music).
"It's true," my mother said.
I don't remember the incident he talked about at all, but I have to admit, it sounds exactly like something I would say.
The way things are made is ridiculously interesting to me. The parts that don't work as they should can bother me for years on end. And yes, I can hold a grudge!
Automobiles are a never-ending source of not-quite-right features, where designers often go overboard in counteracting previous issues. My current car has fantastic, expandable cup-holders that can accommodate things other than soda cans… but are located so that the beverages block the AC and heating vents. Nice! The visors that keep sun from coming through the front windshield have a gap around the rearview mirror, a gap which helpfully lets in enough sunlight to blind you if you're going the wrong direction at the wrong time of day. Why isn't that little area completely dark? Is it so we can be prepared in the event of a helicopter suddenly approaching from above?
Our Toyota Prius is designed so that you push the manual transmission knob up when you want to drive in reverse. All these years later, Toyota still hasn't fixed that. However, the car relentlessly beeps at you the entire time the transmission is in reverse, including when you're stuck waiting to get out of your driveway. It isn't to warn people outside the car that your quiet electric vehicle is moving—they can't even hear the beeping. It's confined to the inside of the car, to make you nuts. In fact, if you Google "Prius reverse," almost all the results involve discussions and tutorials on how to disable the beeping.
These are lighthearted mistakes compared to some of the dangerous ones: gas tanks that explode in rear collisions, malfunctioning brakes (my grandfather became a paraplegic in the late '60s as a result of those), and Smartcars (with virtually no back end) that cannot possibly be safe to drive on the freeway. For a while, many cars included automatic seatbelts in an attempt to solve the problem of people 'forgetting' to buckle up. The belts were mounted on a grooved track in the car door, which meant that if the door came off in an accident—or the car rolled toward the occupant's door—the rider was screwed.
The last time I ever went on the Zipper ride at the State Fair was when I noticed that instead of having a safety belt, you were kept up against the seat by a padded bar mounted on the ride-cage's front door—a door secured only by a latch and an oversized steel bobby pin. If the doors ever came open during the ride, you would fall right out onto the pavement below. My last Zipper ride was in 1976. Wikipedia's entry notes that the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a public warning about the ride in 1977, because four people died that year as a result of door malfunction. I guess I wasn't being paranoid after all.
I'm sure other people are bothered by badly designed things, too. Travel mugs, for instance—their sole purpose is not to spill liquids on you. While the lids keep liquids from sloshing, most of the time they also leak around the edges so that the contents dribble on you if you actually attempt to drink from the cup. How stupid is that? Those belong on a special shelf in Hell next to the glass Mr. Coffee carafes from the last two or more decades, which have a spout specially designed to spill coffee back down the front of the carafe and all over the counter no matter how slowly you pour.
I have one of the early Kindles, which has a bizarrely funky slide-switch to turn it on and off. It's a return-to-zero switch, though, and "off" requires holding the switch over to the side practically forever before the device will power down. For an entire year I read no books on it, but my kids would randomly pick it up and mess with it…and days later, the display would show the "low battery" warning. That was my Kindle's main function—to repeatedly drain its own battery.
The flip side of being annoyed by poor design is that I have ridiculous amounts of love for good design. After we had our first child, I bought a Burley bike trailer with a jogging-stroller conversion kit. The trailer had a bench seat with three sets of belts, so one child could sit in the middle or two children side-by-side. There were pockets inside for books and toys, a rear storage area, a sunshade/screen and rain-fly, and the stroller handle was adjustable to multiple heights. The whole thing was fully collapsible—the top bar unlatched and bent down, allowing the two sides and their wheels to fold down flat, and the front mounting-bar/stroller-wheel-arm folded on top of that. The entire thing became squarish and about eight to ten inches deep, neatly fitting against the garage wall. I could easily assemble or disassemble the trailer in about five minutes.
While jogging, the 70 pounds of stroller plus kids maneuvered so lightly you could control it with one hand. When biking, the hitch was designed so that the trailer stayed upright if the bicyclist went down (a huge factor in my decision to buy it). It was a marvel of mechanical engineering.
Some seventeen years ago, my husband broke his hip and had to use a walker for three months. The walker folded up nicely but there was no way to carry anything on it, so I attached a tote bag to the front. More than ten years later, when my Mother-in-law needed a walker, the one she bought had a seat (in case the user suddenly got tired), a basket underneath to put things in, and handbrakes. I can't imagine there are many people who would get excited about a walker, but when I caught sight of that thing—with every shortcoming addressed and the added genius of the seat—I thought its creator deserved every penny of royalties he or she earned as a result of inventing it.
After my music career, I went back to school and got a Master's degree in Computer Science. Now I work as a firmware engineer (writing software that is embedded in hardware), but the issue of design comes up in all areas of engineering. For me, it usually affects the architecture of the code: can it be called from an interrupt routine, does it need protected hardware access, will it execute quickly enough, and what about sequence and timing? Sometimes it's the design within a smaller piece of code that matters, such as not choking on undesirable inputs (i.e., either gracefully handle the bad data, or do not look at it, but for the love of all that is holy do not deadlock the code over it!)
Our products are used and configured by customers who sometimes know very little about technology. There is an art and a responsibility in making the user-interface and behavior as obvious as possible, and also in trying to keep the customer from accidentally messing things up. A few extra checks in the code for, "Is this a dumb thing to do? Let's warn the customer," not only prevent user-aggravation but also cut down on support costs for the product.
So while I'm not working in mechanical design, that same drive to create complete, useful, and occasionally elegant solutions is still there.
And in the future? Let's just say that one of my retirement projects will undoubtedly include inventing a better and much more comfortable saddle for my road bike.
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.