The Broken Window Theory: A Human-Centered Design Perspective on Assisted Living Facilities.

It's something like the broken windows theory. The broken windows theory was first described by Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and explores how disorder leads to decay, disregard, and identifies a place as one where hope has been lost. The broken windows theory was established as a criminological theory in 1982, stating that disorder and incivility in a neighborhood signaled a norm, establishing a set of behavior that gave rise or encourage subsequent worse behavior. It was made famous by the New York City Police Department. But the broken window is a symbol, and may manifest in many ways. In an assisted living facility, not a city, and in a spilled bit of juice, not a broken window.

This is the broken window, the spilled cranberry juice on the Sunday lunch tray. They bring the trays, they collect them after, spills everywhere. Why fix a window that will just be broken again? You can see the stains from previous spills in the cracked texture of the tray, the patients are not clean eaters, and many require assistance. But to not fix the window, clean the tray, is a sign of defeat, an evident lack of respect for one’s neighborhood, or in the case of the juice, work and service. It's worse that the toilet that never quite flushes (another criticism of the facility entirely), for it is a napkin-wipe from remedy. It is that easy to rectify, but a service provider deemed it pointless. This is how we see that the neighborhood is already burning. The napkin was there. Feet away in the bathroom she could have grabbed the ironically named "Prevail" wipes.

She did not, and the spill remained, a symbol, a signal. This small spill, of no notice to my grandmother, is evidence of service decay, an infectious morale that leaps from host to host, service provider to patient, human to human. When she was deciding to not bother, I was joking to her about what I was doing in the room. As my grandmother slept, I was trying to deadhead and re-arrange the wilting remains of her 101st birthday bouquets. Mustering a mix of small talk and cheer, I admitted the possible futility of what I was attempting. She laughed, kindly, and left soon after. Perhaps subconsciously I was sensing the sentiment that truly "prevails" on this floor.

It's amazing how ugly it looks, when scrutinized, this tray with a spill. Contextual aversion aside, it looks like blood on skin with dark hair follicles; the texture that provides a necessary grip turns into unsettling biomimicry. Even when wiped, the cracked plastic still showed the lingering stains of a thousand spills. Perhaps the product itself needs to supply the motivation. Something that dirties quickly, like white, but cleans just as quickly, satisfying the eye with that advertising trope depicting the clean swath revealed by one fell wipe.

It's the contrast that one craves here. The ability to make a difference. That lack is what let despair in. That people die here, or can’t keep their short-term memory. The majority of the service provider’s work feels futile, Sisyphean.

Could the product help the provider prevail? What texture would provide the necessary grip, eco friendly material, and ease of cleaning? Ease of cleaning is challenged by grip, so the texture must be replaced by something that yields, flattens quickly upon pressure. Something porous, if possible, as the nubs could hold juice as long as they gave the semblance of clean, as of course a simple wipe is not the final run through a dishwasher. Ability to sustain form in high heat, and it also needs to be lightweight. Something convex not concave. Something soft, squishy and supplicant. You almost want to pet it, or play with it, like those fidget bracelets. The function is met, and the psychological wellbeing is addressed, which is another, often overlooked functionality. The need for beauty and purpose, small joys and kind objects, in a place that sees more than its fair share of sorrow.


For another write-up on design and the Broken windows theory, check out fellow medium writer Tobias van Schneider.