The Wallet Vending Machine – A Story About Design & Context

4 min read
Andy Orsow
  •  Sep 11, 2012
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During one of my all-too-infrequent trips to the gym I happened across a fairly interesting example of what I like to call “contextless design”.  That is to say, it’s fair to assume the product in question was probably designed without much concern for the set and setting of its intended use.

I’ll explain…

When I first toured my new gym over a year ago, the salesman boasted of the super high-tech digital keypads appointing each cubby in the locker room.  With sufficiently polite ooohing and aaahing, I marveled at the idea of retiring my old Masterlock.

Clearly this was the future…

Keypad beeps make you feel futuristic

Fast forward a few months…

I waddled into the gym on a Tuesday evening, pregnant with the General Tso’s chicken and chocolate babka the holiday weekend had visited upon me, only to be greeted by an out-of-service ticker tape parade lead by an orchestra of drill-weilding maintenance workers.

“What’s happening fellas?”, I urged over the clanging.

“New locks”, one of the workers replied in a short but satisfied tone.

Exciting!  Surely a next-generation retina-driven-near-field-DNA-SMS access control system.

I reached for my phone, poised to snap a bragalicious shot for immediate dispatch to my brother Troy, a personal trainer at a prohibitively expensive fancy-spandex gym uptown where you actually have to bring your own lock — gasp.

And then…

Raaaaarrrr!  This dinosaur bit me right in the eye-socket…

How could this be?!

Before succumbing to a floor pounded kicking fit, I asked the workers why exactly they decided to shift the Delorian into reverse.

Apparently the digital locks were an absolute maintenance nightmare.  They would frequently go on the fritz, leaving countless “rush-hour warriors” milling about in towels with no way to check email or pre-order post-workout power lattes from the Starbucks across the street — just waiting for the handyman to arrive and override the electronic system.

I should have known it was too good to be true…

A few weeks into using the new manual locks I happened across a unique, and perhaps critical design flaw based on an all-too-common oversight in design thinking.

I’ll illustrate the problematic use-case, but first, here’s how this manual lock works:

Step 3: Cancel all credit cards…

Wallet vending machine…

  1. John, a regular gym-goer, puts his personal belongings into the locker.
  2. He turns the dials on the lock to his desired four-digit combination, twists the locking handle, spins the dials (to obscure his code) and walks away.  All good so far.
  3. After his work-out he returns to his locker, dials-in his combination, and with a twist of the handle pulls open the door.
  4. So what’s wrong with all this?
  5. It’s quite possible (and I would argue likely) that when John removes his belongings, he’ll do what most people will do.  He’ll completely ignore the need to once again scramble his combination after emptying out the locker.  Thereby leaving his four-digit combination in clear site of the next guy, or anyone who walks by.

    Serendipity, sweat, and petty larceny…

  6. Tom, a fellow gym member and casual part-time opportunity thief, notices John leaving.  He waits a few minutes, strolls over over to the empty locker, and jots down the combination.
  7. Since for many, gym-attendance is a recurring scheduled activity, Tom need only return to the gym at the same time a day or two later to find all of John’s valuables at arms reach.  Crafty fellow that he is, he may even choose to take just a little cash or a few credit cards making it all the more unlikely John will ever find out where and when the theft took place, if he realizes at all. And who knows, maybe the locker combo is also John’s ATM pin (I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be so sure you wouldn’t use your most memorable four-digit combination at the gym too).

So what went wrong here?

Likely whoever designed this lock likely did so completely detached from the set and setting of its intended regular use.

Context is sometimes the trickiest part because if forces us to step away from the design table and get into the varied and complex situations where the product and users live.

Considering context carefully can bring new meaning a design project.

That’s where effective prototyping and creative user testing can make all the difference.

Running through the real-life scenarios behind a product’s intent will not only uncover potentially lethal flaws, but inform on yet unconsidered opportunities.

Just look around and i’m confident you’ll find plenty of context fails all around…

Snap a photo and tag it with #contextfail

We’ll be sending some of our favorites a free t-shirt.


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