Conflicts of use: Moving walkways and designer intent

Posted by Ian on Oct 10, 2008 in blog | No Comments

It’s a common experience. You’re running late for a flight, and as you’re hurrying through the airport, all of the moving walkways are clogged with standing people. So you take the high road and quicken your pace, over-taking the ‘standers’ on the outside.
This scenario points to an interesting situation in design – conflicts in use value and designer intent. When you’re confronted with a moving walkway (or with designing one), is it meant to help people move through an airport quickly or to assist those with heavy loads by giving them a reprieve from pounding the pavement through the terminals?
Here is where it gets tough – does it matter what something is ‘meant’ to be? Or is it only how it is used? Arguments for one meaning (e.g. walking or standing on a moving walkway) appeal to some essential meaning or designer intent. And in the case of moving walkways, these two meanings often don’t happily co-exist, so the designer’s/innovator’s intentions are invoked as a way of creating a raison d’etre for the purpose – validating some human uses and invalidating others.
For me, this situation demonstrates a prime opportunity for design thinking – how do you reconcile conflicting human use-values, both of which see designer intent in their use?
This is a microcosmic example of human interaction in shared social spaces. And perhaps the solution isn’t in the product or the manufacture but in the design of the experience/engagement with the space of the product. Without intending to argue for a totalitarian social engerineering of social interaction through design, here are some ideas, thoughts and possibilities…
1)In London, there is a well developed social code in the Tube of standing on the right and walking on the left. You often hear Tube attendants bellowing the dictum from the depths of the system. Perhaps, some of form of direct social communication could develop a shared understanding of the use of walkways.
2)Often walkways are simple raw, gun-metal with stainless steel barriers and two black rubber handrails. Perhaps some colour-coding or amusing anime-inspired graphics could encourage the adoption of certain behaviour on each side of the walkway.
3)Amusingly – you could programme a walkway to stop moving whenever someone decides to just stand on it. The walkway would only move when you moved.

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