An eighth-grade sewing class can do an amazing amount of damage. One of my childhood summer jobs was repairing sewing machines at the local middle schools and high schools. I saw more broken plastic covers than I can remember. Gum was shoved in places that should only contain a fine coat of machine oil. Initials were carved everywhere. I also repaired sewing machines that were brought into our family’s shop by their owners. I never once saw that kind of damage on a machine that was owned and used by one person.
There’s a special kind of vandalism that happens to products used by a group of many people. Whether that group is the public at large or a smaller group of student or coworkers, property that is shared is respected less. Public use is a special case of rugged design.
I’m not a social psychologist, I’m not concerned with why people show apathy or downright disregard for things that are not their own. I am concerned with what we need to do as product designers when creating products that will be used by a group. There are many flavors of vandalism, not all the product of bad intentions.
For some public products, there may be users who literally hate the product or what it represents.
We’ve designed products for use in jails and prisons. I’m not really surprised that a prisoner would spend tremendous time and effort finding ways to disable, destroy or misuse an ankle bracelet.
I’m awed and impressed watching the clever solutions in jailbreak movies. But, we still need to design products to survive in these environments. It’s possible that malice is the easiest case to design for by employing tamper-proof and tamper-evident methods.
It’s easier to imagine the ways a user can harm a product if we know they want to harm it. The less obvious types of harm are easier to overlook.
Students and soldiers get bored sometimes. School and the military can be hurry-up-and-wait atmospheres. In that downtime, especially when under stress, users pick at things. Often the actions are unconscious like when I drum my fingers on the table. A bored student or PFC can pick away
the rubber coating on a part or peel up labels with their fingernail in no time. It’s good practice when designing for these environments to avoid edges that are easy to pick at. Deepen label recesses, design rubber edges to be sub-flush. Finishes that have a higher surface hardness than fingernails help.
We’ve seen very expensive medical equipment beat up by well educated and highly paid staff. There was no malicious intent or boredom. Tight schedules and being overworked will cause users to move in a hurry. That rushing means equipment might not be handled carefully, not cleaned, not maintained. Product designers think about how their product will be used, and that thinking can lead us to believe our product is at the forefront of the user’s mind too. Warfighters being shot at or nurses responding to a code blue don’t have time to baby our product. We can’t exactly blame them. Our part is to make sure the product survives the rush.
Since there isn’t a single person responsible for the care of a public product, users are likely to neglect the care and maintenance of it. Apathy is the least destructive of the types of public vandalism, but it’s easy to forget. Products like life-saving equipment may be out-of-sight, out-of-mind until they become extremely important. In that case, we need to think about how materials respond to sitting idle – corrosion, physical aging, leaking, sticking. We need to think about how something works when covered in dust. Can pests infiltrate and destroy components? It’s a different problem than malice for sure but easier to overlook.
There are lots of types of public vandalism. Rugged design requires a different thought process and upfront identification for each of the problems and use cases.