Thursday, August 4, 2011

In the Eye of the Beholder

In my post about some Coca-Cola tents in Shanghai I commented on a device with a design that led me to misinterpret how it was intended to be used -- with nearly destructive consequences.  At the historic Wenchang Pavilion site in Guiyang, Guizhou, I saw another example of a design that also suggested to some people an unintended use.

Kids sliding down a ramp

The ramp in the photo above is on a high wall overlooking the pavilion.  I suspect that the designer(s) weren't intending it to be interpreted as a kiddie slide.  Furthermore, the ramp's potential use as a slide may not have occurred to me had I not seen the kids using it that way.  But if I were still a kid I suspect I may have been similarly inspired.

It's a simple example highlighting that not only may people interpret the use of something in unexpected ways but that perceived uses can vary for different subgroups of people.  This is a key issue in designing useful and usable technology -- whether it's online services, software, hardware, etc.

Like the ramp above, unexpected interpretations of a design aren't necessarily always problematic.  In fact, sometimes they prove to be invaluable.  Regardless, identifying any such issues early in a design process is often the most opportune time to resolve or capitalize on them.  This may mean leveraging available knowledge of human behavior & cognition and/or conducting novel research.

The better and earlier that intended users can understood, the lower the risk of an undesired hit or slide when it's too late.


  1. I think those kids have the RIGHT idea ... I want to slide down that ramp too!!! W.C.C.

  2. Yes, kids often have brilliant ideas. Maybe in a later post I'll share about slides in Guiyang, Shantou and Xuzhou designed for adults. They certainly provided a fun way to descend some hills.