Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sometimes There's An Easier Way

One of the great things about technology is how it always seems to solve our problems. Science-fiction movies often show a future world where robots do all of our hard work for us. This may not turn out to be the case: a computer with a monotone voice doesn't have to be part of the solution. Sometimes the technology behind improving a way of life is just a simple trick that plays off our instincts.

One way to improve traffic flow at a busy intersection could be the addition of new lane. Maybe a detour for one direction or even a big old bridge that elevates one lane above the others! The great northern state of Minnesota is trying a new implementation of a technology that already exists. When we pull up to a flashing yellow light, we've learned to look around before continuing. Some traffic lights in Minnesota now have flashing yellow left-turn signals that allow a turn lane to go even when the opposite direction has a green light. It increases traffic flow while keeping a safety measure in place, and only from adding one extra light to each traffic signal.

Sometimes making it simple means introducing big, colorful buttons. This is true for pumps at a national gas station chain, which include printed instructions for their pay-at-the-pump service. The problem is, pictures of the buttons are printed in the directions. The end result? Customers try to press the colorful text in the instructions, rather than the actual buttons. (from Cabel Sasser) So when trying to simplify, remember that the end result might just be confusion.

Perhaps the most famous examples of a simple way to solve a problem are the flies in Amsterdam's urinals. I don't need to go into the problem faced by most urinals, so I'll just leave it at "splashing." Instead of building barriers around each urinal or installing mats on the floor, a little fly is painted inside each urinal and it fixes the problem. (from Reading Eagle) The fly taps into every man's deepest instinct of, well, peeing on a target. So with each fly strategically placed to minimize splashback, the job of keeping the restrooms clean is done by the restroom-goers themselves.

So what's the story? Sometimes technology doesn't mean introducing electronic gizmos to the scene. Sometimes all it takes is a little graphic or sound to augment an experience, rather than a complete overhaul. Whether it's managing cars at an intersection or controlling for some men in a hurry, it's worth the while to consider a simple solution.


At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Kevin Hainline said...

I don't really understand the yellow-light deal. It sounds like now Minnesota has a light that means "drive like you can if there is no turn light."

For years people have griped about the green left turn arrow, saying that they should always be allowed to try to make that left turn. I love the green light, because it gives me a time to make the left turn, and in southern california, you don't get it unless it's given to you.

This yellow flashy deal doesn't sound like it would work well in southern california, I think that's my problem.

At 5:28 AM, Anonymous marcie denton said...

Yep. We need to consider the wholetechnology spectrum - low tech served humans for thousands of years!
Keep up the good work, Brian!

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Brian said...

I think the thing with the flashing yellow light is that it does say "turn left as if there were no light at all" but the flashing yellow triggers the reaction to slow down and make sure it's safe first. That is, if you react that way to flashing yellow in the first place. Some people drive right through.

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