html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: My Dad believes in physical solutions too.

Friday, September 08, 2006

My Dad believes in physical solutions too.

Amanda wrote:
One of my most pervasive memories as a kid is of my father insisting that he would not raise daughters who could not fill a damn gas tank. Therefore, I had to pump the gas when I was about seven and my hands were not big enough to go around the handle and it always made that webbing between my thumb and fore finger hurt. I still resent him for that. I don't resent him for teaching me how to change a tire--that has come in handy because cars never get flat tires on slow moving city streets with ample parking and a phone nearby. No sirree.

My Dad wouldn't let us take the test for a learner's permit until he watched us change a tire by ourselves. But he never made us pump gas. Which is why it took me half an hour to figure out how to put gas in the car the first time. I hadn't ever paid attention and there was a long sequence of not knowing which side the tank was on, and how to start the pump, and how to apply pressure to the handle. I think I went back and forth to the vendor a couple times, 'cause I didn't know when you paid. I wasn't too frustrated, 'cause I wasn't in a hurry and I knew I would eventually get it. I think someone finally came over to show me, which is what happens when you are a cute white girl. I haven't changed my own tire; it would be a far worse betrayal of my father to exist in the world without a road service policy.

I told you that my Dad thinks I'm lost in the clouds. He didn't trust my driving at first, and installed a back-up alarm on the car I got to drive. He said it was a gentle reminder to look in the direction I am driving. My sister and I got to school early every morning after that, so we could pull through the parking spot and not have to go into reverse to leave in the afternoon. The back-up alarm had a switch on it, so he could turn it off when he was driving. I still regret that I didn't put on my thickest Valley Girl accent (which still surfaces sometimes when I'm with friends from home) and call Car Talk to ask Click and Clack how to turn off the back-up alarm. Honestly though, I think their sympathies would be with my Dad.


Blogger susan said...

I learned to drive in Oregon, which is one of the (I believe two?) states in which it is illegal to pump your own gas. The first time I tried to borrow somebody's car when I was in Ohio for college, she told me the tank was almost empty and that I should just make sure I filled it before I took the car anywhere. It was with much chagrin that I had to ask her how exactly I would go about doing that.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yeah, it isn't obvious how to pump gas. Now that I'm an engineer, I believe really strongly in well-designed systems that lead users through the process. I now believe that if I can't figure out how to do a task in daily life by looking at it for a few minutes, the engineer who designed it failed. Pumping gas doesn't meet that standard, so it is a good thing that Amanda's Dad made her learn.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dennis said...

There's a neat book all about this called The Design of Everyday Things.

This guy describes what we all hope is true... if we can't make IT work, it's because some knucklehead didn't design IT properly!

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh!? How does pumping gas fail that?

You weren't an engineer at the time that it confused you. And look at the whole setup, what's tough about that. The is a hole in your car that accepts the pump nozzle. Nozzle in hole, pull grip... But it's not quite that easy...

Gas isn't free so the pump isn't always on. There is no trust in the world anymore so you need to pay or establish credit first.

Gas evaporates, would leak out, or could be stolen from your car, so there is often a door covering the cap.

Cars have sides and putting a port into the gas tank on every side is impractical and would add risk, so you have pull up so that the pump is close enough to the port. The side that the port is on is sometimes indicated on the instrument panel.

There are different grades of fuel for different uses. If your car does not REQUIRE premium, you should be using regular. This will often be noted somewhere on your instrument panel.

Given the constraints, how is the solution not obvious...

1) Arrive at the pump such that you have proximity between the port and the nozzle
2) Establish trust
3) Open port
4) Select product/grade
5) Put nozzle in port, squeeze grip
6) Remove nozzle and return to pump
7) Close port
8) Complete payment if necessary

Possible improvements:
1) Standardized, locking, no spill port which identifies required grade and automatically engages pump when connected. Eliminates opening the port, grade selection, squeezing the grip, and closing the port and reduces spillage and vapor leakage.
2) Mobile Speedpass. Establishes trust and completes payment super quickly. Still requires zip code authorization step.

How would you redesign the process?

-- Tim.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

It is hard to remember what I didn't know the first time, but briefly:

From inside the car, there is no way to know where the gas tank is (still true of rental cars), so you don't know why way to approach the pump.

You don't know how far away to park, because you don't know how long the hose is.

Some places you pay first; some places you pay after. But, there is no indication that the reason the pump isn't on is that you haven't paid yet. It could be because it is broken, or because you haven't selected the grade, or for some other reason.

At the time, there weren't screens with prompts on them.

I had no idea how much gas cost. Did I need to pay a few dollars or a lot of dollars?

Anyway, there's more, but I'm making my friends late.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to Susan -- us Oregon boys learned to pump gas in Kentucky, when I was also first introduced to WalMart. Since then, WalMart and I have had an uneasy relationship. -K.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Melanie's brother said...

That's funny, I feel like it would be a betrayal of my father to have a road service policy. A real man, you see, could fix whatever was wrong with his car with his bare hands and whatever he might find by the side of the road.

11:59 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

Tim, you are forgetting that (back in the day anyhow) you had to lift up the latch that the nozzle was on, to start the gas flowing. It was decidedly non-obvious.

I did make some effort to come up with a better term than "switch thinger" but I failed in that effort. In the course of so failing I came upon a claim (on the internet, so it must be true) that all new cars (since when? they didn't say) have a little arrow next to the fuel guage that tells you which side of the car the gas tank is on.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That's right! I forgot lifting the lever! And applying only some pressure, but not enough to stop the flow? Not intuitive...

3:35 PM  
Anonymous ptm said...

"I now believe that if I can't figure out how to do a task in daily life by looking at it for a few minutes, the engineer who designed it failed."

I am with you completely here. That's one of the most consistent major failing of software manufacturers, and one reason is that so many nerds don't prioritize usability.

The same principle also applies to verbal communications, but it's rarely easy to say "If someone as smart as me doesn't know what you're talking about, you didn't explain it well enough."

8:17 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

The other state that prohibits self-pumping is New Jersey.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Bob V said...

I'm curious that no one seems to have mentioned actually wanting to pump the gas when they were a kid. I remember desiring to do it and my parents obliging. I always pumped the gas thereafter.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Jess said...

Parents who don't have their kids pump gas really haven't figured out the purpose of having kids. Considering what a regular event "gassing up" is for most families, it's painful to contemplate the damage done to children when they're allowed to sit on their asses while Mom or Dad jumps up out of the seat and braves the elements to perform a task that any monkey could be trained to do. As for the apparent non-obviousness of the actual procedure, this is more an indictment of New Jersey and Oregon than of gas pump engineers. Normal people operate gas pumps whenever they drive. This is like saying that toothpaste should come in a more intuitive container. Maybe we could imagine something more user-friendly than a toothpaste tube, but who on Earth would need it? Only someone who had never once before used toothpaste, and in the developed world these people are in a small minority.

5:30 PM  

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