Sometimes reinventing the wheel is exactly what you need

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

The argument for not re-inventing the wheel is often one of efficiency. The wheel has already been invented, it’s a commodity; just get the cheapest wheel you can find, a wheel is a wheel.

An argument for re-inventing the wheel is one of effectiveness for the job at hand. What would vehicles today be if they were restricted to using the “original” wheel?

But wait, you say, an iteration of the wheel isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, it’s just an improvement, a “re-imagining”. The people who went from solid wheels (of rock, perhaps) to hollow wheels with spokes weren’t reinventing the wheel. Or were they?

Consider the tracks that were developed for heavy machinery and armored combat vehicles. These are not “wheels” in the traditional sense. Those vehicles would not be possible if the wheel had not been reinvented. Would we have been able to send humans to the moon if we hadn’t reinvented the wheel?

I think where most people get bogged down on this is the question of form over function.

If what you need is an actual wheel, a circular object into which you can insert some sort of axle and then place a chassis of some sort onto that axle so that the resulting vehicle can move from place to place, then what you have is not an issue of invention but rather a question of selection: pick the right wheel that already exists for the job, maybe modify its form slightly to meet your needs.

If, on the other hand, you have a need for a means of providing locomotion for an as yet not designed or built system of some sort, then limiting yourself to a “wheel” that has already been designed may be overly limiting. And reinventing the wheel may be exactly what you need to do.

Accepting change: thoughts inspired by turning left

“If the light is green, and there is no one coming in the other direction, you can turn left.”

This is what I learned about turning left at stoplight (aka traffic signal) many years ago when I learned to drive. Over time, though, turning left at a signal has gotten a bit more involved.

In addition to the basic green light, traffic signals gained a left turn arrow, that would let you know when it was OK to turn left without worrying about oncoming (or side) traffic. Sometimes you could turn left with the flow of traffic on your side, sometimes you and traffic opposite would turn left together.  A sign declaring Left Turn Yield On Green appeared on these signals for when the arrow was not lit, just in case the mere presence of the arrow made you forget that simple rule.

[A short detour: When we lived in NJ, there were many intersections that did not have left turn arrows, but had signs declaring Delayed Green. It took me a little while to realize what this meant was, “Your light is green, the other direction’s traffic is not, so go ahead and turn left if you like.” Of course, this was at the seemingly rare intersection where you could actually turn left by turning left.]

Some intersections then earned an actual Left Turn Signal, where a left turn could only be made when the arrow was green, independent of the regular flow of traffic. I assume these are in place to help support efficient traffic flow or safety, but they can be a bit irritating when the main light is green, there is no traffic, and you are stuck with a red arrow and can’t turn until the light cycles through.

There is now a newer variation on the theme, something I first noticed several years ago: a left turn signal, separate from the main flow signal, that included a flashing yellow arrow in addition to the red and green arrows, with an accompanying sign letting you know, Left Turn Yield on Flashing Yellow. At first I thought this a bit silly, not sure what benefit this really gave. But then I had occasion to use one of those flashing yellow arrows to turn left, when the main flow light was red.

I have to admit, it kind of freaked me out a bit the first time I made that turn with the main light red, knowing that the light for the other direction was green. “Freaked out” may be a bit strong, but it was definitely an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. I’ve been driving for 30+ years, and this was a significant change.

A good lesson for any type of change (maybe in your life or your company): acknowledge the change, understand its history, and give it a chance.

Categories, tags, and the mayonnaise problem

In one of our local grocery stores, mayonnaise is located in the aisle with salad dressing. In another, mayonnaise is located with condiments (such as ketchup and mustard).

According to Wikipedia, mayonnaise is a condiment. A variety of sources talk about mayonnaise as a base for, but not necessarily being, salad dressings of various sorts.

What intrigues me here is the decision making process of the store managers or, if there is such a thing, the “person who decides what products get placed on what shelf in which aisle” when evaluating where they should shelve mayonnaise in their store.

And, even more so, how they came to these different decisions.

Left or right? (Or, Design considerations for public facing restrooms)

When designing and building restrooms in public facing spaces, for example at a restaurant or a gas station, there are many things to consider. How many stalls and/or urinals, how many sinks, paper or air dryers, etc. Some of this, I’m sure, is dictated by public law, some by architectural standards, and some (I hope, anyway) is determined by the artistic and aesthetic desires of the designers themselves.

Having been at a few places over the weekend, I noticed something else about the design of these spaces that hadn’t occurred to me before: in some places, the Men’s room was on the right, and in some places it was the Women’s room that was on the right. And some doors open in, some open out.

Which got me wondering:

What is the decision-making process that goes into deciding which restroom – Men or Women – goes on the right, and which goes on the left? Which door opens out and which opens in? And what about those occasional “family” restrooms, what goes into the planning for those in terms of their placement?

Qualitative or quantitative: some thoughts on automobile fuel gauge design

The absolute best user interface idea ever in a car is that little arrow next to the fuel pump icon on the fuel gauge, you know the one I mean. (And if you’ve never noticed this before, you’re welcome :)

Maybe not absolutely necessary after you’ve had your car for a while, but very (very) useful when driving an unfamiliar car, like a rental. Other than that, I have to admit never really paying much attention to the fuel gauge in a car (at least not until the low fuel light starts blinking!). Not until I found myself in one of those aforementioned rental cars, anyway.

In my experience the fuel gauge in most vehicles, such as my Nissan Frontier, is based on textual indicators, specifically Full and Empty.

Fuel gauge in a Nissan Frontier

On the other hand, the VW Passat I once rented had a a gauge based on numerical indicators, with a full tank represented by 1 and an empty tank interestingly not indicated by either text or number.

Fuel gauge in VW Passat
Fuel Gauge in VW Passat

Having the fuel gauge top out at 1, with the halfway point being 1/2 and empty (presumably) 0, is somewhat reasonable in a mathematical sense. And interestingly, the value of “half” works in either/both the textual and numerical senses.

But most people aren’t really interested in the math of the situation, they’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m almost at zero fuel.” They’re thinking (as the low fuel light blinks at them), “Oh, the tank is almost empty.”

I can’t help wondering how the systems engineers and the user experience team at VW decided to use to indicate a full tank. What was the decision-making process, and what were the evaluation criteria? Is this a case of engineers being engineers? Perhaps a cultural thing, something uniquely German? Or is there something else at play here?

If you know, please share.