Bad, Smelly Design

I really hate bad design, mostly because I really love good design. Ever open an Apple product? Ever write with a really good ball point pen? Ever thumb through a book by Phaidon? These are all items which are thoughtfully designed, finely crafted, and incredibly satisfying to use.

We use poorly designed products much more often than we use well designed products. Sadly, these poorly designed products are often part of our every day lives.

Cardboard milk cartons. Plastic clam-shell packaging. The Pontiac Aztek. If you use any of these items regularly, you know all too well the pain and inconvenience of a poorly designed product. Fingers covered with milk droplets. Razor sharp plastic shards covering a Barbie doll. The Aztek speaks for itself, with apologies to Walter White.

The contemporary gas pump has to be one of the worst designed products any of us use on any kind of a regular basis. Mostly, we don’t care. We zip in, we scan our credit card and check Facebook on our phone while our tank fills up with gas, and we go. But, take a look at this last gas pump I used. I would guess it looks a lot like the last gas pump you used, and it probably looks like the next gas pump you will use.

img_41291. There are no fewer than five LCD screens on this one device. The top screen keeps track of how much gas we pumped and the rate for the specific gas we have purchased. Then, we get a separate LCD for every gas option price, and we get a larger screen for credit card instructions.

2. But, the credit card instruction screen is not where the credit card is scanned. It’s not even close! For that, we have to go to the keypad and scanner on the right. In fact there are no fewer than 14 opportunities for data input of some kind, if you count the numeric keypad and scanner as one opportunity each.

3. There is a button to press to speak to the station attendant. There are indicator lights on each gas button to tell us which gas is being used. There are signs, notes and alerts all over the pump. There is a separate slot that spits out your receipt. And to add insult to injury, many gas pumps now feature a TV screen showing advertising soaked sports, news and entertainment updates.

Your eyes dart from side to side. You are not sure which button to press next. The buttons on the right side of the pump control the LCD screen in the middle of the pump. Everything smells like gasoline, and soon you smell like gasoline. And unlike almost any other purchase you make, you have to enter your zip code to verify your credit card. Buttons, screens, slots, noises and stink.

Addison Duvall, writer and designer, writes about the 10 Golden Rules of Simple, Clean Design and reminds of some important eternal truths, such as “less, but better,” “make it pretty” and “be understood.”

Take a good look at your next gas pump. Was this poorly designed machine created by an inept committee of well meaning engineers, designers and accountants, or is the gas pump merely the result added functionality and features through the years? Whatever the reason, we are here, and our lives are worse for it.

But we can make it better. So, to anyone in the gasoline industry who may be reading:

  • Give us one screen to use, not five
  • Let me pay with my phone
  • Have antiseptic wipes nearby so we don’t stink like gas
  • You are the only ones who ask me for my zip code when I pay with my credit card. Cut it out.
  • You need to have a button? Fine, you can have a button, but just one. Have the functionality of the button change with the operation.

I don’t need you to automatically fill up my car with gas, though I am sure that will happen some day. Just take a good luck at the pump, realize how very, very poorly designed it is, and fix it. Thank you.