Toner and Hopelessness...

My friends and family, over the years, have come to me for help when they encounter something that they cannot quite seem to figure out. “Give it to Mehrafza. She is a designer. She knows what to do with it...” Again and again, I explain to them that if the product is that difficult (or seemingly impossible) to use, then it is the consequence of terrible design. My typical “solution” for such cases: rummage through youtube and online forums to see how others have worked around the failed design. Or, when all else fails, bang the item against the countertop or floor…

Yesterday, bad design struck once again in a way that made me feel particularly hopeless and stupid. I had entered the majestic Brooklyn Central Library with the modest goal of printing three single-sided, black-and-white, letter-sized pages on one of the institution’s two self-serve printer/photocopiers. My USB stick was in hand, properly-functioning, and eager to release my file onto the printed page. The forty-five frustrating minutes that were to follow played out like an episode of Seinfeld.

No obvious written guide was provided for the casual self-service user, so I asked the lady who was already tangling with the other printer next to me if she had any advice. First, I would have to put money on my library card, she informed me, which I did by inserting a dollar into the neighboring ATM-like machine, swiping my card, and entering my code. I was ready to print my pages. Great. But that wasn’t all. Next, I would need to swipe my library card and enter my code again in order to access the printer. Finally, the home page showed up! Ten minutes (and many steps) into this process already, I allowed myself to believe that I would be done with all of this soon.

Now I just needed to find the USB port, which, of course, was not immediately next to the touchscreen interface. That would be far too simple! No, it was instead buried and unmarked down the left side of the machine and was only discovered by my printing neighbor, whose help I had once again elicited. She was sporting and supportive, even though I could see and hear her becoming increasingly frustrated with her own (seemingly simple) photocopying task. Our relationship was beginning to develop the way one might between two people who find themselves locked together for hours inside an elevator or on a lifeboat after a shipwreck.

Nevertheless, finding the port seemed like progress, so it was time to print! The interface was exhaustingly linear. It somehow managed to look bright, shiny, new, and absurdly archaic all at once. It took several minutes for me to go through all of the options and understand them. Although there were USB-related options, I could not find one that would allow me to print. Foolishly, I had expected that this would have been a rather basic function for a machine full of clean copy paper and toner. Growing increasingly desperate, I decided to push all of the buttons and maybe uncover a printing screen as a hidden sub-option. No luck. However, I did manage to somehow copy and paste two more duplicate files of the one I was trying to print back onto my USB. The printer was now taunting me…

Meanwhile, my neighbor was spiraling into a deeper frenzy. She seemed unwilling to accept that the machine would take her money while denying her the ability to simply duplicate eleven black-and-white pages (the raison d'être of such a machine). I empathized with her as I observed defeat’s approach causing her to grow more unhinged by the moment. I started looking for hidden cameras capturing what could only have been some sort of staged, cruel social experiment.

My own endurance was also in short supply. I finally decided to stop fighting with the machine, with my own brain, and with all of the knowledge I have accrued over fifteen years of lectures, research, and industry experience focused on the importance of the simplicity of design. Yes, dear reader, I gave up and asked a person from the library reference desk to help me.

I lead the kind and patient librarian to the machine and he became visibly shaken when he found my neighbor-in-suffering, who at this point appeared to be quite unstable. A true professional, he then repeated all of the processes I had explored over the previous half hour before admitting simply, “I don't know this printer.” He then removed my USB stick and asked me to sign out from the printer. I followed him back to his desk, where he inserted my USB on his desktop computer and pulled up my file. It then took him a couple more minutes to find the print button on the computer interface. This time, I ended up walking him through it: “Go to ‘file’. Scroll down and ‘print’ is there.” He sent my file to another printer, not intended for public use. He asked me to swipe my card and enter my password. Eureeka! The three black-and-white pages were there. The whole episode lasted a solid forty-five minutes inside the walls of a massive, modern library - Brooklyn’s biggest.

As I was leaving, I noticed that my partner in elevator captivity was still fighting the machine for her eleven pages. I walked over to share my condolences and she admitted that she had reached the point of surrender. She seemed utterly deflated as she packed up her pages and thought about nearby copy centers where she could pay somebody else to complete the task for her.

I wish that I could share this story with all of the companies that maintain that design research is a frivolous waste of time and money. We need to design better systems for the public, especially if we hope to encourage them to embrace these systems in order to have a better and more sustainable world. My printer story is only one of the countless examples that we encounter every day. Who knows how many similar frustrating episodes have caused people to reject community services and to rely instead on consumption and self-centric products.

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