Bad users or bad design?
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Hey <<First Name>>,

Do you ever hear a story where you laugh and feel bad at the same time? I recently read a story where I felt just that.

A couple in their mid to late 60s almost suffocated in their car when their keyless car, a 2014 Mazda 3, locked while they were in their new car. In addition, by happenstance they had left the key fob (the transponder) in the house as well as the operating manual. It was around 7pm at night, November 5th, which was also unfortunate for them because in Alexandra, New Zealand where they live it was Guy Fawkes night (yes that Guy Fawkes) and so there were fireworks and celebrations all night. So although they yelled for help and honked the horn, no one could hear them in their car on such a loud night. The couple even tried braking the window with a car jack but reported that it was not successful. By 7:45am the next day, after 13 hours trapped in the car, with his wife having passed out, struggling to breathe, finally caught the attention of one of their neighbors and were freed. The emergency services said if they had spent another half hour or so they could have died. So was this a major design flaw in the Mazda 3? Were people prone to getting trapped inside their cars? The answer: Um, no. They could have opened the door at any time by flipping the lock.

Now if you are like me, your first reaction is a nice, long, hearty chuckle. Go ahead. I'll wait. I won't judge. Then perhaps a few moments of disbelief that someone could be so thick-skulled. Some on the internet even called for awarding the couple with the Darwin Award. But as designers, we must dig deeper and give it a more empathetical inspection. After the above reactions, I started to think "how might this happen to me?" I talked to someone I know who has a keyless car and they mentioned that after a minute or so the car will lock. I imagine this older couple, not familiar with a keyless car, not shown by their dealer how it works, hearing the sound of the locking, "cha-chink", and upon finding that the key was left in the house, coming to the conclusion that they were locked in. I can empathize with how someone might come that conclusion. The next issue was not discovering or thinking to check for a manual lock they could open. That just seems obvious. So I looked up what that lock switch looks like in a 2014 Mazda 3 Hatchback.

So imagine you are them, you're new to a keyless car, its dark out, you have the adrenaline pumping from coming to the conclusion that you are locked in, which can sometimes cloud your judgment, and that is what you see.

The lock is a little hard to spot in this photo. When locked it is flush with the handle, and in dark lighting it blends right in. So if you've come to the conclusion that A. the keyless car maybe doesn't have locks like my old car (which usually was a pull up lock perhaps), B. the keys are outside the car and the car has locked, then you would conclude that you are stuck.

Theres another lesson here, if I may take a moment. We can often come to very wrong conclusions based on "facts" and then make very stupid, wrong decisions based on that information. Often what we think are the limitations are not solid. They are malleable. It's important to always test your assumptions, your limiting factors, and your constraints. We so often limit ourselves needlessly.

Okay back to the main point. When you first heard this story you, like me, assumed their full-fledged stupidity. Hopefully now, you can empathize a little bit more with them. Mazda New Zealand manager Glenn Harris told Otago Daily Times that the report of the couple being trapped was an industry first. "It's not a design flaw in with the car ... what we have said to the network is, with new technologies, don't forget to show customers how to use them in their entirety [and] how to override them. There is always a manual process to override them." He added that he "completely empathized with the couple but added that it hadn't happen to anyone else. 

The women in the story says she has had 5 people reach out to her with similar stories. I took a look and found some other cases. One was of a lady being trapped in her Audi Q3 on a hot day in Australia, which was also in 2014. There was also a report of a man and his baby getting stuck in a Porsche in Sydney in 2010. I found it interesting that all three happened in the same region but of course in our story it was clear nothing malfunctioned. I also found a forum thread of people having many issues, a few getting locked in but many more getting locked out. After more investigation it seems there is quite a lot of confusion about keyless cars.

So back again to our story, was this a design flaw or an edge case? Are they idiots or is this a design problem? As designers we will be faced with such questions in user testing, time and again. Do I write off this persons problem? Is it really a problem or just a thick headed person I shouldn't worry about? Sometimes edge cases like these reveal confusing designs that almost all your users either have to learn, be taught, or there is mental friction in using because it actually is bad design but the rest of your users have figured it out. It could be argued that the lock blends in too much with the handle, but what isn't arguable is that the experience of buying the car should have come with some instruction on how it works. The forum posts that abound on the internet about keyless cars prove that others have similar confusions about how it works at a basic level or the fob becomes easy to displace because you are used to simply having it on your person, and since you don't have to touch the keys to lock or unlock, you can misplace them. So perhaps your users wont lock themselves in like this couple, but maybe the lock or the fob needs some investigating and rethinking. What are some of the areas other users get confused about in this area?

So I encourage you to take a deeper look the next time you see a user who has made a seemingly stupid error, empathize, and see if you can uncover a root issue. Don't just write it off. Do the work, design it better. It's so easy to write off the .001% but if you do you might miss opportunities to learn about real issues.

Until next time friends. I leave you with this GIF. Don't see your users like that. :)
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