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Why I Love Broken Design

Broken design gives me a chance to bitch about the things that I almost love, things that should work better than they do. And to come up with a way to make them more loveable.

It’s probably why I like critiquing landing pages. Most of them are garbage and fixing them is rewarding.

I love design, both physical and virtual. I love interaction design. Design that’s affected and affective. And I love it when it’s broken.

Recognizing when things are broken – have been poorly designed – is one thing;

  • Push-when-you-should-pull door handles.
  • Never-start-when-I-have-soapy-hands automatic taps.
  • Touchscreen TVs on the back of an airline seat. Are you kidding me? What genius thought that was a good idea? Tap, tap, tap. Is that annoying? Tap, tap, tap. How about now?
  • Grey’s Anatomy DVD menu screens that take 14 clicks to start an episode. (That’s a window Inside Oli)
  • Etc.

Figuring out a solutiona better design – is another thing entirely.

What I don’t like is whining for the sake of it. It’s my job as Creative Director to find ways to solve problems, not just observe them and walk on by.

So what do physical design challenges have to do with my work Inside Unbounce? Well, every flawed design introduces friction to it’s user, and every time I feel this friction myself, I learn a little more about the problem solving process.

This is exactly the same as the conversion rate optimization (CRO) process. Understand the pain, develop a hypothesis to address it, and run an A/B test to see if you can remove it.

My mother is currently on a giant Grey’s marathon after I bought her the DVD box set for Christmas. I don’t think it’s fair to force a septuagenarian to make that many clicks on a remote. #firstworldproblems

Okay, let’s talk about a real-world design problem. Vancouver bus tickets.

I loath them.

The Problem With Bus Tickets

The colour contrast is so slight that it’s virtually impossible to see the directional cue in bright light, when you’re in a hurry.

They are a pain in the ass to get in the ticket reader slot. Slowing people down as they board the bus.

As far as I’m concerned, there are four flaws with the design of this human «-» bus interaction:

  1. There is no clear indication on the ticket of which way you need to insert it for the reader to work. There is some small writing, but it should have a giant high-contrast arrow.
  2. The ticket reader doesn’t allow the ticket to be inserted in any direction I choose. Which would solve flaw #1.
  3. The slot in the reader itself is designed to be exactly the same width as the ticket, making insertion fiddly.
  4. One of the corners is cut out, creating a slope. This looks like a physical guide to aid insertion. It’s not. So if you picked up on that, you’d insert the ticket upside down.

Friction like this can cause delays. With buses, you’ll just suck it up and wait. But with an online product, any friction a user/visitor encounters can cause them to leave.

I wonder if they create the bus schedule bearing in mind the average time of a ticket insertion?

How to Save All The Bus Tickets

As is often the case, I was sitting at my local bar “Central Bistro”. Waving the bus ticket around in front of 3 friends, engaged in a very heated and voluminous debate about the life and times of bus ticket design.

You might be shaking your head thinking that’s not something to get worked up about. But in my mind it’s the ultimate thing to get worked up about.

Design is everything. Everything is design. There is nothing that you see, touch, work with, read, taste that hasn’t been designed, or couldn’t be better with an improved design.

Design is *not* unicorns and rainbows.

Addressing the design flaws

To solve a problem, you need to hold on to the feelings that led you to establish it’s existence. What were the pain points and frustrations that caused me to care?

  1. I couldn’t insert the ticket in all directions.
  2. It was difficult to insert into the reader.

Now, as a reality check, when I say difficult to insert. It’s not that hard. It’s just harder than it should be. However, that “less than optimal” for me, might be a very difficult experience for someone with infirm fingers, or dexterity issues.

Solving the direction problem

Here we’re faced with being able to insert the card in any direction. This requires that the magnetic strip be readable from any of the four possible feed directions. Back and front, up and down.

To solve this you could:

  • Put 4 magnetic strips on it (2 on each side) to cover the 4 configurations.
  • Or, you could switch the burden to the reader (instead of increasing costs on the mass manufactured tickets), by putting 4 magnetic readers inside the machine.
  • Or, you could magnetize the entire card.

Half way there.

Solving the insertion problem

The first problem was insertion related too, but now I’m talking about the physical friction you experience while trying to stuff the card into a straight, narrow slot, while walking away from said slot. A visceral interaction as opposed to the previous decision-based interaction.

Looking at the existing card, it’s like they accidentally stumbled on a way to smooth the insertion without actually realizing it. The chopped off corner – especially if they put it on all four corners – is a great way to direct the card into the slot.

So. We know we need a card that can be inserted in any direction/configuration and that there needs to be less friction involved, both of which will speed up the process.

The Answer: Make it a Circle

Look at the circular ticket design below. The magnetic strip is now a dot, positioned in the middle of the ticket, removing the need for the reader to be on the left- or right-hand side. It could be double coated or exist more like a Timbit (the extracted middle of a donut in Canada) that works all the way through for maximum efficacy.


The circular design removes *any* possible shape friction when inserting into the slot as it is, by virtue of it’s design, always perfect no matter which way you hold it.

I got a huge rush debating this theory, coming up with many dumb ideas to solve the problem, and then coming up with one that I would actually stand behind. I got a rush when I finished writing this.

Design turns me on.

If shit was never broken, we wouldn’t have an appreciation of shit that is good.

That’s why I love broken design.

— Oli Gardner