Elevator Rant

They've[1] installed a new elevator system in the building where I work, and I feel the need to rant about it a little.

The system seems to me to be an example of a very clever system that ends being really much worse than a simple system.

Here's the way it works: Before getting on the elevator, you punch in the number of the floor you want to go to and the system directs you to an elevator -- the main lobby there are six elevators labled D through I[2]. You go and get in that elevator - a small strip just inside each door shows the floors that the elevator will be stopping at, so you can confirm that you're getting on an elevator that is going to your desired floor. That's important because there are no floor selection buttons inside the elevator.

The theory, I suppose, is that the system can rationally distribute people between elevators -- grouping people headed to the same floor and so on. It is true that at peak times (morning and lunch rushes, for example) the lobby was a swirling mess as people would eye the various elevators, trying to intuit which might arrive next, self-selecting into groups of coworkers and then sort of lunging at an elevator. There's also been a change in how the designated 'garage' elevator works with the new system, but I think that may be more of a policy change than any technological shift, and is certainly an edge case specific to this building, so I'm going to ignore it.[3]

The biggest flaw in the system is that I had to tell you how it works. Elevators have a remarkably consistent user interface -- you press one of two buttons (up or down) to summon an elevator going the direction you want, you get in the elevator, locate the button for the floor you want to go to, and press it. I've been wracking my brains to think of any variations I've encountered and about the only thing I can come up with is very tall buildings where there are banks of elevators designated for different floor ranges and you need to read a designation and self-select for the correct set of elevators.

The system was just installed this week and the main lobby has been a mass of confusion every day. People come into the lobby and stare around for an 'up' button to press. If someone notices their confusion, the system can be explained to them (the security guards have been doing little else all week). But if an elevator happens to come, newcomers to the building confidently get into an elevator only to encounter a blank panel where they expect floor buttons. Depending on how quickly they realize the situation, they either try to compete with the flow of people into the elevator or are stuck riding the elevator to the pre-selected floors. If they don't get off at one of those floors and select their floor there, they'll ride the elevator at the mercy of external selectors.

People will learn the system, of course, and that confusion will lessen. It might even a fine system for a building with mostly office workers and only occasional vistors. But our building has a large number of doctors' offices -- every single day there are new patients coming to the building who have never been there before. The confusion is going to be on-going.

And speaking of doctors, that's another flaw in the system -- a signifcant portion of our elevator travelers seem to have strollers or be in wheelchairs. The system assumes that everyone is a perfectly average size and will happily assign 3 stroller-laden travelers to the same elevator. And if someone passes up an elevator because it's too full, the system has no idea and still stops the elevator at their pre-selected floor.

Finally, the system can only rationally distribute riders if every single person punches in their desired floor. We may be able to learn the new required behvaior, but for the moment we've been well trained by every other elevator system that if you see someone you work with, you can just get on the same elevator as them and you'll get to your destination. That's still true, but if you just join a coworker instead of punching in your floor yourself, the elevator car will likely be overfilled.

Oh, and this is the tiniest, and most correctable of all the problems with the system, but the system has a touch screen interface in the main lobby (the higher floors have keypad with small LCD displays). They haven't done whatever little Windows UI trick is required to hide the cursor, so a little Windows arrow jumps to where you touch with your finger. It just looks shoddy.

I'm certainly not opposed to change[4] and there's no reason that just because 99% of the elevators in the world have the same UI that you couldn't develop a new, better one. But if you're going to replace such a simple, widely understood system, your new one had better be just as easy to understand and offer significant benefits. I really don't think this system, especially in our office building, does either of those.

[1] The system was installed by Schindler Elevators. I'm guessing it's their Miconic 10 Destination Dispatch.

[2] Why would you want to start the lettering at the heaviest used end of the building? I guess you wouldn't.

[3] To be fair, that may be one of the benefits of a system like this -- to allow the 'smart' system to handle the logic behind edge cases. I know that this is the first step of an elevator modernization effort in the building that's going to involve replacing the actual elevators as well, and I suppose the system could deal with weird situations like "elevator H can't go above floor 12 this week" that would be more difficult to explain to people with signs or policies.

[4] You kids, however, should get off my lawn.