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Five things elevators teach us about design, psychology and hats

Since the 1860s, when they first appeared in the lobbies of plush hotels, lifts have changed the world.

Before the lift, buildings were generally no higher than about seven floors. After the lift, we had skyscrapers.

This story is now part of the Fluxx book Whatever happens, we don’t want people to write to the Daily Mail. You can download a copy here.

Pre-elevators, the more affluent in society would live near the bottom, and the less well to do at the top. After the lift, we got the Penthouse — the most desirable residence in any building.

Before the lift, men would always take their hats off when they entered a room. The New York Post reported in 1903 that elevators were causing a real quandary for men with regard to hat etiquette. Were they in a room or not? Today, social awkwardness in lifts continues, it just has different manifestations.

But as a technology we interact with, it achieved stability (safety and reliability) quite a long time ago — and mainstream adoption has been on the rise ever since, so it is also a microcosm of how people and technology interact, with some lovely parallels to the world of product innovation.

1. The thing we fear the most is the least likely to actually happen

Malfunctioning lifts don’t fall. Actually, they tend to rocket upwards.

When a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building

The most terrifying potential lift incident is the dreaded free-fall to the bottom of the shaft if a cable snapped. Talk to anyone in the elevator industry though, and they will tell you that the last instance of this was in 1945 when an errant B-25 bomber pilot turned the wrong way and ran in to the Empire State Building — severing all of the cables on two separate elevators in the process.

One 19 year-old lift attendant fell from the 79th floor to the subbasement and survived. She was dug out of the rubble by a 17 year-old hospital apprentice who gave her morphine he’d blagged from a pharmacist on the way to the accident site.

Much more likely to occur instead of this free-fall is getting stuck in an elevator. In 1999, Nicholas White was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours after going out for a cigarette. The other more likely scenario is the elevator running wildly out of control and rocketing skywards — but without the Willy Wonka happy ending. This happens rarely, but it does happen.

Fear of an imagined worst-case scenario often cripples many organisations from trying anything new — but experience shows, that the perceived risks are often dramatically different from the actual risks, and you don’t find them out unless you try something in a safe environment.

2: Customer problems and the birth of the #elevatorselfie

How do you develop better lifts? Make them faster? Here is the result of millions of dollars of R&D on doing just that:

452 metres (123 floors) in 60 seconds. Dull though isn’t it?

Now try this one from Shanghai:

How long did that one take? And how did it feel?

In Shanghai, they’ve addressed the actual customer problem — boredom. When bored customers are asked what they would improve about lifts, they say ‘make them faster’… not ‘make them more interesting’.

What about waiting for the lift in the first place?

At Fluxx, we know from our work with people like Argos and Heathrow, that queuing, and waiting generally can be real pain points. With lifts, you have the added dimension of the stressful game played trying to work out which lift will arrive first, then beating everyone else to get in it, and then praying that everyone else in the lift is going higher than you and that you won’t stop at 10 other floors before yours.

Destination dispatch systems: Making lifts slightly more annoying since 1996

In response to this problem, the elevator industry came up with ‘Passenger destination dispatch’ — the method whereby you enter the floor you want to go to and are assigned a lift car (by letter usually) and once in that car, you are guaranteed to get to your destination floor much faster. You also cut out the uncertainty at the bottom.

Cost to implement in a typical office building in London? At least half a million quid.

Do complaints go down? No they don’t. Instead, they rise. People are uncertain of how the system works, they don’t feel in control of the experience. Every time they are assigned a car, they are measuring the performance of this supposedly better system against their own internal benchmark of how long it should take.

So, what might be a better solution?


One New York building manager at a multi-floor office block was receiving so many complaints about waiting times for the lifts, that he commissioned a report into replacing the lifts. The outcome was that it was deemed to be financially unfeasible to do so, and that tenants would have to live with the problem. Given that some tenants were threatening to break their leases because of it, he called a meeting of his staff to discuss. Barry Borsboom picks up the (often told and probably apocryphal) story:

“[His staff] included a young recently hired graduate in psychology. The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom. 
“Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.”

And if mirrors can fix perceptions whilst waiting for an elevator to arrive — presumably the same is true inside the elevator whilst waiting for it to get to its destination— so, lo and behold, the #elevatorselfie was born.

The problem in all these scenarios isn’t the fact that the lifts don’t come fast enough, or take too long to get to their floor — it is that the customer experience of waiting is poor.

The people making faster lifts and ‘passenger destination delivery’ systems are investing a lot of R&D bucks into huge assumptions about what it is that people need — probably because they asked them what they wanted, not looked at inventive ways to make their lives more pleasant.

So what?

If ever a customer asks for a feature — such as a faster lift — just ask ‘why?’ You will then uncover the real motivation, and it’s possibly something you can fix much more easily.

Learning 3: Customer perception is their reality — listen to it and react to it, don’t try to change it

Are you in a rush?

At Fluxx we prefer facts over opinions, so let’s look at some facts in the context of another elevator myth; “the close doors button — fact, or fantasy?”

Not all lifts have them, but when they do, there are some of us who press them manically and some who don’t. Here’s a jolly looking graph:

Img: http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/2008/10/01/placebo-buttons-false-affordances-and-habit-forming/

In this case, the close doors button didn’t do a thing. But it did give a clear placebo effect. It made the presser of the button believe that things were happening faster than they actually were.

Learning 4: Timeboxing is the perfect way to hone your thin-slicing skills

One of the lift’s great legacies is the elevator pitch — the short bit of patter you use when you have just a few seconds of someone’s attention to make an impression.

Why is the elevator pitch, in an actual elevator, so effective?

  1. You have the captive attention of the lift occupants
  2. You can only deliver a few key pertinent points in the time available, so it forces you to make tough choices about which ones you include
  3. It’s a leveller — we’re all in the same boat, fearing the broken cable plummet without the security of our big desk or corner office — this makes us more confident and there is a natural bond (albeit a brief one) between us that breaks down natural barriers to communication.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, talks about ‘thin-slicing’ — this is where you make up your mind about something based on a very thin slice of data — and it commonly happens in just seconds.

“One of the stories I tell in Blink is about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. That’s the big public hospital in Chicago, and a few years ago they changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: they encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain–like blood pressure and the ECG–while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. And what happened? Cook County is now one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain.”

What the lift environment enforces is scarcity of data — it’s a time-box (it’s also actually a box), we don’t have the clues or cues of status that might accompany someone in their natural environment. In the lift, we are all the same; humans trying to survive defying the laws of physics.
They are consequently the best training environment for practising that discipline of honing in on what the important data points are — whether it’s pitching to the CEO, or assessing whether that guy wearing the hoodie is a sneak thief, or the Head of Innovation.

[For more on time-boxing, you might enjoy my piece How to find your Minimum Viable Cat]

Learning 5: Jumping just before impact doesn’t work!

In short, if a lift did go into free-fall, the science says that you’d never be able to jump fast enough to counteract the speed you’re already going.

Now, there’s definitely room for an analogy here with companies and their attitudes to creating new products or services. Some things are in decline so fast that if you’re waiting until you are about to hit the bottom, there won’t be a thing you can do about it.

Paul Dawson is a Partner at Fluxx, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Lloyds Bank, Royal Society of Arts, the Parliamentary Digital Service and William Hill.

If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy “Six behavioural flaws that make us stupid around money” and “13 things we learned while designing a more democratic Houses of Parliament.” We also sometimes write articles without a number in the headline.