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‘Elegant usability’ must be the watchword in public spaces

The word ‘design’ is often used in an esoteric sense. It could mean a product design, building architecture or a designer baby by a sinister bio-scientist. The classic definition following design thinking principles starts with empathy and ends with “usability”. If I may qualify, it is “elegant usability” to the user.

Is it ingrained in people’s culture? Why do we see the quest for aesthetics of simple, elegant usability evident in everyday life, as if by nature, in some countries? Why do we see chaos in everything, as if by design, in some cultures? These were my questions on my recent visit to Tokyo. Japan never fails to amaze me!

To beat the jet lag, I was walking around in the crowded narrow lanes that all lead to the Shibuya cross somehow. Among the blinking myriad colours of neon signs, I was looking for a quiet place to have a hot meal. It was a small restaurant, probably of a size less than 500 sq.ft. What attracted me was its elegance. The open kitchen was in the middle, with seating on high stools for the clients on the sides of the rectangular kitchen. The place could accommodate 15 people at a time.

Having been used to the pandemonium of the famous darshini restaurants in Bangalore, I was impressed by the calm and swift service. Looking around in the restaurant demystified some of the basic “design” elements. Every seat had a menu card with pictures and details. The person taking the order moved around inside a rectangular enclosure and took order with a tablet. The cook got printouts to be pinned on the wall. The beauty of the kitchen design was that the cook had all the things within reach. Pans were hanging on the wall. The shelf with ingredients was just at the right level. Precooked noodles and rice were on the table. Hot oil pan to fry was on the left within reach. The plates were stacked on one side. The cook need not have to move more than probably two steps. The clients had similar facilities on the ledge serving as a table. There were cutlery, soup spoons, chopsticks and tissues for every seat. Once seated, a diner need not move around.

Compare this scene with a Bangalore darshini, where the client has to move around the entire space to place an order, wash hands, give the order to the kitchen at one counter and pick up food at another, wait for coffee at yet another counter and keep looking around to grab a stand-in table. And inside the kitchen, one can see the cooks and servers running around in a Brownian movement all the time — to pick up a dosa from one corner and sambar from another corner, crossing the vadas being fried in hot oil en route. They would be shouting at the top of their voices, among the background music of the wet grinder. Is it cultural?

I came across another design example at the airport check-in counters. How many times have we come across the scene — an old man or a lady with a child struggling to lift the luggage to put on the weighing scale, as the person at the check-in counter looks on nonchalantly. In some airports, there are helpers to assist, but that is not a design solution. The fundamental question would be why do we need to lift and place the luggage. I did not imagine that the issue could be solved with such an elegant design until I saw the check-in at the Tokyo airport. The weighing platform is at the ground level, you just need to slide the luggage across. What a simple solution that is of great help!

I saw the third and ultimate design thinking example at the Tokyo metro stations. The crowd there during the peak hours is incredible but still flows like a silent river. If at all there is turbulence or a whirlpool, it would be due to a foreigner who does not know how to swim along. It was amazing to see virtually no queue at the entry points where we need to swipe or insert the travel card or ticket. It is a common sight that we come across a long queue during peak hours in all the cities with impatient commuters and slow turnstiles or doors. I have seen people jumping over the turnstiles in Paris. In London, I saw a station covered all the sidewalls and space above doors, giving an impression of a prison.

But in Tokyo, the entry point is always open, and just swipe the card and keep moving. If the card was invalid or not having sufficient money loaded, there is a beep and the small door closes. What an elegant system! You don’t have to prove that you are not guilty every time and wait to be acquitted. And the violators will be caught anyhow. It raises another cultural question in design, do we believe that people are honest and there may be few exceptions or do we think everyone is out there to cheat.

I come back to my original question. I am wondering if the quest for aesthetics of the elegant design is ingrained in some blessed cultures!

thesrikrishnan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:56:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/good-design-scores-in-empathy/article30420680.ece

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