Slanty design

Library of Congress, Main Reading Room
The Main Reading Room, Library of Congress. Image from CIRLA.

In this article from Communications of the ACM from January 2007, Russell Beale uses the term slanty design to describe “design that purposely reduces aspects of functionality or usability”:

It originated from an apocryphal story that some desks in the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, are angled down toward the patron, with a glass panel over the wood, so when papers are being viewed, nothing harmful (like coffee cups, food and ink pens) can be put on top of them. This makes them less usable (from a user-centric point of view) but much more appropriate for their overall purpose.

[S]lanty design is useful when the system must address wider goals than the user might have, when, say, they wish to do something that in the grander scheme of things is less than desirable.

New Pig cigarette binCone cup
The angled lid on this cigarette bin prevents butts being placed on top; the cone shape of cup subtly discourages users from leaving it on the table.

We’ve looked before on this site at a couple of literally ‘slanty’ examples – notably, cigarette bins with angled lids and paper cone cups (above) – and indeed “the common technique of architects to use inclined planes to prevent people from leaving things, such as coffee cups, on flat spaces” is noted on the Designweenie blog here – but in his article, Beale expands the scope of the term to encompass interfaces or interaction methods designed to prevent or discourage certain user behaviour, for strategic reasons: in essence, what I’ve tried to corral under the heading ‘architectures of control‘ for the last few years, but with a different way of arriving at the idea:

We need more than usability to make things work properly. Design is (or should be) a conversation between users and design experts and between desired outcomes and unwanted side effects… [U]ser-centred design is grounded in the user’s current behavior, which is often less than optimal.

Slanty design incorporates the broader message, making it difficult for users to do unwanted things, as well as easy to do wanted things. Designers need to design for user non-goals – the things users do not want to do or should not be able to do even if they want to [my emphases]. If usability is about making it easy for users to do what they must do, then we need to have anti-usability as well well, making it difficult for them to do the things we may not want them to do.

He gives the example of Gmail (below), where Google has (or had – the process is apprently not so difficult now) made it difficult for users to delete email – “Because Google uses your body of email to mine for information it uses to target the ads it delivers to generate revenue; indeed, deleting it would be detrimental to the service” but that in fact, this strategy might be beneficial for the user – “By providing a large amount of storage space for free, Gmail reduces any resource pressure, and by making the deletion process difficult it tries to re-educate us to a new way of operating, which also happens to achieve Google’s own wider business goals.” This is an interesting way of looking at it, and somewhat reminscent of the debate on deleting an Amazon or eBay account – see also Victor Lombardi’s commentary on the where the balance lies.

How to delete an email in Gmail

However, from my point of view, if there’s one thing which has become very clear from investigating architectures of control in products, systems and environments, it’s that the two goals Beale mentions – “things users do not want to do” and things users “should not be able to do” – only coincide in a few cases, and with a few products, and a few types of user. Most poka-yoke examples would seem to be a good fit, as would many of the design methods for making it easier to save energy on which my PhD is focusing, but outside these areas, there are an awful lot of examples where, in general, the goal of the user conflicts with the goal of the designer/manufacturer/service provider/regulator/authority, and it’s the user’s ability which is sacrificed in order to enforce or encourage behaviour in line with what the ‘other’ party wants. “No-one wakes up in the morning wanting to do less with his or her stuff,” as Cory Doctorow puts it.

Beale does recognise that conflicts may occur – “identify wider goals being pursued by other stakeholders, including where they conflict with individual goals” – and that an attempt should be made to resolve them, but – personally – I think an emphasis on using ‘slanty’ techniques to assist the user (and assist the ‘other party’, whether directly or simply through improving customer satisfaction/recommendation) would be a better direction for ‘slanty design’ to orient itself.

Slanty carousel - image by Russell Beale
“Slanty-designed baggage carousel. Sloping floor keeps the area clear”. From ‘Slanty Design’ article by Russell Beale.

Indeed, it is this aim of helping individual users while also helping the supersystem (and actually using a slant, in fact) which informs a great suggestion on which Beale elaborates, airport baggage carousels with a slanted floor (above):

The scrum of trolleys around a typical [carousel] makes it practically impossible to grab a bag when it finally emerges. A number of approaches have been tried. Big signs… a boundary line… a wide strip of brightly coloured floor tiles…

My slanty design would put a ramp of about 30 degrees extending two meters or so up toward the belt… It would be uncomfortable to stand on, and trolleys would not stay there easily, tending to roll off backward or at least be awkward to handle. I might also add a small dip that would catch the front wheels, making it even more difficult to get the trolley or any other wheeled baggage on it in the first place, but not enough to trip up a person.

If I was being really slanty, I’d also incorporate 2 cm-high bristles in the surface, making it a real pain for the trolleys on it and not too comfy for the passengers to stay there either. Much easier for people to remain (with their trolleys) on the flat floor than negotiate my awkward hill. We’d retain the space we need, yet we could manage the short dash forward, up the hill, to grab our bags, then return to our trolleys, clearing the way for the next baggage-hungry passenger.

There are some very interesting ideas embodied in this example – I’m not sure that using bristles on such a slope would be especially easy for wheelchair users, but the overall idea of helping both the individual user, and the collective (and probably the airport authority too: reducing passenger frustration and necessity for supervision of the carousel), is very much something which this kind of design, carefully thought out, can bring about.

7 thoughts on “Slanty design”

  1. There’s always communication to keep people from crowding around carousels…

    1) Insert RFID tag in luggage tag
    2) Allow passengers to indicate their membership of a group (couple, family, party, etc.)
    3) Allow passengers to request an SMS txt notification when any of their (or their group’s) luggage arrives at a carousel and to be informed as to which carousel it is (or at damaged/lost/oversize counter).
    4) One day luggage handling systems can keep baggage of the same group together, possibly even distributing such grouped luggage to the carousel with most space.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Every one of the examples in this post reduces options or activity available to the user, as approriate to your topic, but this particular collection of examples stands out (to me) among your posts.

    Perhaps because the activity restrictions here are so mildly inoffensive, it is easier than usual to look at a commonality of intent, which appears at first glance benign or even well intentioned.

    Our papers would be safer from coffee …but it would also be more difficult to have any; our public spaces are be cleaner and less littered with the ashes and cups …but combining a drink of water with both food and a small child becomes much harder, and so on.

    All these things seemingly protect us from responsibility for ourselves. That philosophy isn’t a particularly healthy one for society in general, imo.

    The actual benefits of protecting people from themselves in these ways accrue to a financial bottom line through the resultant protection of physical property, by reduction in replacement, repair, and maintenance costs.

    Instead of ‘form follows function’, I see form follows a hidden agenda.

    Vera

  3. Hi Dan,

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    It’s an easy process to get on board, and I can be reached at clayton@verveearth.com for questions or feedback. If you resonate with the vision of painting a global canvas of voices, please give VerveEarth a mention.

    Cheers! -Clayton

  4. It seems at first a reasonable idea: designs that communicate specific uses or behaviors and limit other ‘undesirable’ uses or behaviors. However, I am not quite sure that all of the examples referred to really are examples where one could clearly argue that this was the case.

    It has been a number of years since I last used the Library of Congress for research, but I believe they have a zero-tolerance policy for food and beverage of any kind in the main reading room. I do not believe that the desks with the slanted tops were designed to prevent you from setting your cup of coffee down on them–they are very old desks, designed for reading and library study by people who had very different cultural and social behaviors than we currently have. The notion of the Library as a public gathering/meeting/social space in addition to its functions as a library is a late twentieth century development. More likely the case–the author’s customs and expectations regarding libraries, studying, and reading are culturally much different than the designers of the antique furniture at the Library of Congress. This might be a bad example that does not support the hypothesis.

    The conical drinking cup shown looks like the typical sno-cone or restroom-dispenser disposable paper cup to me–I do not think anyone would ever suggest drinking a hot beverage (or any beverage that was meant to be enjoyed over time instead of immediately consumed) out of one of them. I would assume that the design is more a response to material and cost efficiency, rather than an attempt to prevent you from putting your drink down. I am sure that it was designed with certain types of uses preferred over others, but it was also designed to be cheap and easy to make, with as little manufacturing waste as possible.

    God forbid that we resort to designing 30 degree slanted surfaces around baggage carousels. While crowding may be undesirable in the author’s view, providing accessibility and usefulness to persons of all and differing ability (including those in wheelchairs) is one of the most democratic goals of twentieth century architecture in the United States. If you were to ask me, the entire experience of airline flight has been eroded and whittled away to the point where, upon arriving at a final destination, a passenger’s biggest desire is to get out of the airport and as far away from the experience as possible. Incremental negative changes, from seat size and spacing, to the gradual elimination of services, have occurred in air travel and air travel facilities for the last two decades. Creating undemocratic spaces such as the example shown would only continue the decline.

  5. The story of the slanted desks reminds me of when I used to work on sound & light crews for bands and clubs – we fought a constant battle against punters balancing pints of beer on mixing desks, amp racks and any piece of expensive electrical equipment with a flat surface. The solution was always a slanted surface – either permanent – round the DJ box in a club, or temporary – gaffa taping a flight case lid onto the top of an amp rack at a 45 degree angle. Generally it worked, no beer spilt on high voltage equipment.

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