Timeout for a Design Rant

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for one of my “pet peeves” (and I have many according to my friends.)  But it’s design and travel related, so I feel it’s not too far off the mark.

Blackout Window Shades vs. Room Electronics – Who Wins?

This is by no means a problem unique to India, but I am reminded here because the room I am in has blackout window shades.  (This is probably related to the fact that most international flights arrive at 2am, which IS unique to India.  The other place blackout shades are prevalent is Las Vegas, but for a very different reason.)  Blackout shades are great, IF they actually block all the light.  The worst are the ones which allow narrow slivers of light to leak through, becoming piercing laser beams in the early morning, exactly the point you need more sleep.  But this is perhaps not so easy a problem to solve – how do you get the drapes to overlap precisely or the blinds to touch the window edges so no light gets through?

What amazes me is that hotels go to the effort and expense to put in blackout shades (however inadequate) and then add room electronics that never shut off.  This hotel (and the ones I remember in Vegas that bothered me) has a computer monitor next to the bed which controls music, temperature, and lighting.  Great, right?  So, I want to know why, when I hit the button to shut off all the lights in the room, the computer monitor isn’t one of them?  If I want to block the sun in the morning, doesn’t it follow that I want it DARK in the room at night?

But what if you need to find your way to the bathroom in an unfamiliar room, you ask?  The Japanese actually get this design right.  Hotels often have a nightlight – a soft light under the nightstand which points at the floor and is not noticeable with your eyes closed, but which can also be turned off completely.  When bedside controls exist, they are usually physical buttons and not an LED display.  In a country known for it’s digital displays, this tells me they actually thought about the problem.

Those LED panels are so bright, they are definitely noticeable with your eyes closed.  I usually end up with a towel folded up several times thrown over it, but still, enough light comes through to be annoying.  (The ones in Vegas were attached to the wall making this simple workaround impossible.)   I’ve read that LED light is disruptive to sleep AND it’s a waste of energy, so why can’t it shut off within a few seconds and come back on when I touch the screen?  We certainly have this technology.

And here comes the design lesson (as pointed out by Don Norman in one of his many books) – this is why it’s important to listen to the “user” not just the “customer”, and to distinguish between the two.

The person (or people) who decided on these room features probably never slept in one of these rooms.  If all hotel owners and staff were required to sleep in their rooms before they open, the world would be a better place.  Okay, perhaps this example is minor in the scheme of things.  But if good design can improve our daily existence in small ways, the world at least feels like a better place.

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