Honestlyreal

really? honestly?

Lift your spirits

There’s a lot to a lift.

If you fancy yourself as a bit of an analytical thinker, go and get a piece of paper and a pencil. Think of a lift you know. It doesn’t matter whether you love it, hate it, or have no particular feelings and just think of it as a means of changing floors in a building.

Now, for exactly 10 minutes – time yourself – make as many notes as you can about the factors involved in answering these questions:

“What has made this lift like it is?”

and

“How should this lift be?”.

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Turn off the screen. Go on. Really – Turn It Off.

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Anything interesting emerge? Maybe, maybe not. How much did you generate? Anything there about logical behaviour, customer service standards, risk, accessibility, aesthetics, lifespan, safety, efficiency, queuing theory, optimisation, heuristics, geographical location, environmental impact, user health, cost, policy, procurement, politics?

What I love about lifts is that the basic premise is immensely simple and transparent. If you have two floors in a building, a box on a wire can take you between them. With the exception of odd twists such as hydraulic mountings this is essentially all they do. In a sense. But as soon as you start to introduce additional variables: number of floors, number of lifts, uneven distribution of users over time, etc. things can get very complex very quickly. Which makes “what has made this lift like it is?” a pretty interesting exercise in analysis. Finding the story-behind-the-story.

Oh, before going back to the paradigm which will be adopted from here onwards of “a box on a wire” it’s worth briefly remembering the first lift that really caught my attention. My faculty building at university had a splendid creation called a Paternoster. (Pub mythology has it that they’re now illegal. I wouldn’t be surprised.) Every floor of an eight-storey building had two floor-to-ceiling open hatches next to each other. In the two shafts that lay behind them circulated perhaps 20 platforms on a belt stretching the entire height of the building and back again, naturally. At any point in time eight platforms would be ascending, eight descending, and I guess two each at top and bottom going round the wheels in the basement and 9th floor machine room. For the avoidance of doubt, the platforms were on gimbals – should one ever accidentally travel the voids at top and bottom (and who didn’t?) it wasn’t a question of being hurled from floor to ceiling as the ‘virtual lift box’ inverted. Of course there were nods to safety: pivoting boards built into ceiling, floor and lift platform (think of these as the ‘cutting edges’ and you’ll get the picture) which if disturbed would freeze the whole thing and prevent amusing toe-severing scenes on the way to Dr Brady’s lectures. (While I know many who would do the whole 16-floor trip just to see what it was like, I don’t know of a single soul who tried to test the safety boards to see if their fingers/toes remained intact.)

Back to ordinary lifts. Think again of a set of lifts you know. Are they designed around the user? First thing in the morning – when everyone’s coming in – do they ‘rest’ on the ground floor, ready to receive their cargo, and returning after they’ve dropped each load off on higher floors? What about the end of the day? Would you expect them to take up resting positions distributed over the higher floors to increase the chances of one being ready and waiting as users arrive? Would you skew this to favour the higher floors? That might help more people to take the stairs… Already it’s possible to see how different objectives might be met by tweaking the way the lifts work.

There’s a nine-floor building in London with what seems like a fairly generous selection of eight lifts. Until you watch their behaviour closely. Then you see that, even if all eight are resting on the ground floor, your request for upward travel will only result in the same one opening and re-opening its doors until it’s full. (It probably knows it’s full via a weight sensor in the floor.) You certainly won’t get another one opening its doors for you until the first has left full. This means that some poor souls will have two or three minutes to endure with the doors opening and closing before finally leaving. And others jab frustratedly at lifts they know are there, but can’t use. What on earth’s going on? Then you remember that this used to be the Department of the Environment. Was it a procurement coup to pick the tender with the lowest energy use? Or is a political point being made by tweaking the lift logic to ‘maximum efficiency’ even if this results in a less-than-delightful user experience?

The mathematicians have some fancy algorithms to optimise the basic logistics of covering ground efficiently. There’s even a branch of queuing theory known as elevator theory. Amongst other things it can be used to design how the magnetic heads that sweep over hard disk drives work. (If you have several heads, and need to collect data from different portions of the disk, then you face very similar planning challenges to moving people to different floors of a building.) But, as we’ve seen, even the purity of logistical efficiency can take second place to health, politics or other objectives.

A closing thought: next time you’re waiting for a lift, or indeed, in a lift, and you don’t quite get the service you want – you might well be getting the service that some else wants you to have. And that goes for pretty much every other customer experience you encounter…

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