An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

2.03 Affordances

This week I participated in a service project that involved replacing the carpet in a large room. Half the group had the option of painting bookshelves, and since I already know how to paint but I don’t know how to tear up or install carpet, I opted for the latter.

Removing the carpet was relatively simple:

  • Break the paint seal on baseboard molding
  • Pull off molding and discard
  • Cut carpet into manageable pieces
  • Carefully pull carpet off the floor
  • Roll up removed carpet sections and discard
  • Remove old glue from floor

The last step sounds deceptively simple. You just scrape it off, right?

The tool for this is not quite as long as your arm, with a plastic handle on one end and what looks like a squeegee on the other end. Only it’s not a squeegee, it’s a razor blade, and it’s a little off center.

So the guy in charge hands me one of these and I watch him use it for a minute before walking over to the other corner to get started.

The longer I used the tool, the more it taught me about itself. I learned it was easier to use if you lean over the tool on both knees and put some of your weight on the blade end. (Carpet installers always have knee pads, which gave me another clue about this posture.) It was easier to use if I made long strokes from left to right across my body, rather than up and down in front of me. The final brilliant realization I had was about the angle of the blade. As weird as it looked, the angle was perfect to allow you to make the back-and-forth motions for a while in one direction and then flip the tool over, switch your hands, and make the motions in the other direction. I finally understood why the tool was shaped this way.

One thing that was not so obvious was when the razor blade needed to be changed. When the scraping was becoming more and more difficult and the effective angle of the blade became steeper and steeper, I didn’t know whether it was because of a dull blade, fatigued muscles, or a more difficult part of the floor. Only when I remembered that replacement blades existed did I think to change it, and it made a vast difference. The tool doesn’t really have a way to measure the blade’s sharpness, so I suppose this would have to be learned by intuition and experience.

My everyday work involves writing enterprise software, which is not always intuitive or easy to use. Its design does not necessarily teach you how it works. The reasons for that and for why consumer software tends to be more self-explanatory are a subject for another day. But working with physical tools reminds me to notice their design and think about how those principles apply to digital tools I use and create as well.

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What’s the best- or worst-designed tool you’ve ever used?