1. Design

How do you design an interface for a 1000 Floor Elevator?

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I came across this interesting question recently, apparently posed to designers as part of an interview process at Google.

As someone who studied Lift Design Software, coupled with 5 years experience as a Product Manager, I see this as something which can be approached as a product problem, as well as a design problem. And as someone who uses lifts (Yes, I call elevators, lifts) on a daily basis, I feel I may bring empathy and logic to a potential solution.

I’ve read some of the other articles people have written to try and tackle this problem — some of them pose interesting design solutions which are excellent for the constraints they set themselves. Others have managed to write a thousand words before concluding that there’s not enough information. That’s boring — set some constraints and give the problem a whack! The whole point of a question set in an unrealistic scenario is that you can set whatever rules you want to play by, and come up with interesting solutions for others to discuss.

Assumptions

  1. The building has 1000 floors. I’m assuming every floor is accessible via each lift, also assuming a building of this scale would have multiple lifts. In reality, the lifts would likely operate with ‘Express Zones’ so an individual lift would only serve a pre-defined range of floors. Also, in reality, teleportation would probably be more likely than building a one thousand floor skyscraper.
  2. The building serves both residential and office space needs. Assuming anywhere from 50–300 people working on any given floor, you’re basically looking at a building which houses a small sized city.

Initial Thoughts

To start with, there’s plenty to think about before you even think about the lift itself.

I’ve worked in One Canada Square, London, which is one of the tallest buildings in the UK. The lift system in this building works pretty well, though admittedly it only needs to serve 50 floors. So what about a building which is 20x the size?

People will use whatever lift interface you give them.

First thing first — people will use whatever interface you provide to them to use the lift. Why? Because the alternative is climbing potentially hundreds of flights of stairs. Even with the worst lift interface in the world, it’s still going to be preferable to mandatory uphill exercise.

My source for this is having to evacuate One Canada Square during a fire drill, going down 22 floors via the emergency staircase — if going down is tedious enough, no chance I’ll be going up anytime soon.

Identifying Users

As far as I can tell, there are four primary users that need to be considered:

  1. Residents.
  2. Office Workers.
  3. Visitors to the building.
  4. Building Support Staff (Maintenance workers, Security, etc).

The Lobby

One Canada Square in London’s Canary Wharf has a large lobby with multiple reception desks where people can make enquiries and collect access passes. At peak times, there can be up to 10 people staffing these desks, serving a building which is occupied by around 12,000 people.

The majority of people who need to access the building have NFC enabled security passes, which they scan to enter the building — a system common to any office skyscraper. The staff on the desks would primarily be dealing with visitors to the businesses in the building — probably around 50–100 people in total at any given time.

But a building 20x the size would mean 200 staff, and several hundreds to thousands of people in the lobby wanting to get access. This is much more of a logistical nightmare to deal with, and wouldn’t be feasible.

A self service approach is more ideal — as airports, train stations and supermarkets implement self service kiosks, people have become more familiar with them. But the problem remains that some visitors to the building will have no idea which floor they are supposed to be going to.

I’ve worked in One Canada Square, London, which is one of the tallest buildings in the UK. The lift system in this building works pretty well, though admittedly it only needs to serve 50 floors. So what about a building which is 20x the size?

People will use whatever lift interface you give them.

First thing first — people will use whatever interface you provide to them to use the lift. Why? Because the alternative is climbing potentially hundreds of flights of stairs. Even with the worst lift interface in the world, it’s still going to be preferable to mandatory uphill exercise.

My source for this is having to evacuate One Canada Square during a fire drill, going down 22 floors via the emergency staircase — if going down is tedious enough, no chance I’ll be going up anytime soon.

Identifying Users

As far as I can tell, there are four primary users that need to be considered:

  1. Residents.
  2. Office Workers.
  3. Visitors to the building.
  4. Building Support Staff (Maintenance workers, Security, etc).

The Lobby

One Canada Square in London’s Canary Wharf has a large lobby with multiple reception desks where people can make enquiries and collect access passes. At peak times, there can be up to 10 people staffing these desks, serving a building which is occupied by around 12,000 people.

The majority of people who need to access the building have NFC enabled security passes, which they scan to enter the building — a system common to any office skyscraper. The staff on the desks would primarily be dealing with visitors to the businesses in the building — probably around 50–100 people in total at any given time.

But a building 20x the size would mean 200 staff, and several hundreds to thousands of people in the lobby wanting to get access. This is much more of a logistical nightmare to deal with, and wouldn’t be feasible.

A self service approach is more ideal — as airports, train stations and supermarkets implement self service kiosks, people have become more familiar with them. But the problem remains that some visitors to the building will have no idea which floor they are supposed to be going to.

In the case of an office, the visitor is granted access to the building, where a lift is assigned to them which will take them to the reception area of the business they are visiting. Both the reception and the person they are visiting will be notified (via their phone) that their guest is in the building.

In the case of a resident, a video intercom will be triggered in the resident’s home. When they answer, it will allow them to see the person in the lobby at which point they can approve or decline access for them to enter the building. Approval will assign a lift for them to take them to the resident’s floor.

John Smith, meet John Smith

What happens when two or more people might have the same name, which might mean they get the other resident’s building access requests?

The visitor can be displayed additional information if there are multiple residents with the same name in the building, to ensure they pick the right person they are visiting.

But this is where privacy is a concern. The interface shouldn’t allow strangers to work out where a resident lives, so displaying the address of a resident is a no-no. Perhaps attaching a profile picture to the name should be enough — one would assume if you are visiting someone in their home, you already know what they look like.

Profile pictures don’t necessarily have to be of the person either — telling your guests “Pick the John Smith with the cute cat photo” will mean your guests can find you and let you know they’ve arrived, without causing privacy concerns to those who value it.

Residents and Office Workers

Clearly a different method is needed for people who regularly use the building, either as a home or place of work.

A Lift Traffic Analysis growing in popularity is where the user selects which floor they need before they even enter the lift, through panels in the public lobby. This then directs the user to which lift they should wait at.

Advantages of this system:

  • Lift Design Application can allocate users travelling to the same, or nearby floors, to take the same lift, thereby saving time overall.
  • The system can work out the likely capacity of the lift, and how many users could be travelling in it, to ensure it does not allocate more users to a lift than it can handle.
  • The system can handle dispersion of foot traffic in the lobby area, to ensure one area doesn’t become to overcrowded by having people wait for lifts in different areas.
  • The system can keep lifts waiting at different parts of the building, depending on time of day. For example, at the start of the working day, lifts will be needed at the lobby as workers arrive. At lunchtime and end of the day, the lifts would be dispersed as workers head home for the day.
  • In a building with a large population as this, there would likely be a rush towards lifts as they arrive, unless there is a level of organisation in place.
  • Also, considering the lifts would likely be large capacity, there would be a scrum of people trying to enter their floor number at an interface located within the lift itself. This system removes that risk.
  • Methods such as voice activation would just be impractical considering the volume of people we would be catering for. Also, in places like London, breaking silence in a lift is a crime punishable by death.

Disadvantages of this system

  • Selecting the wrong floor means you need to reselect your lift.
  • Selecting the wrong floor and getting into that lift will result in you going to that floor, with no option to change your mind.
  • A general lack of control once you’re in the lift, if you change your mind about which floor you want to go to.

Another point when it comes to office workers: There will likely be businesses which span across multiple floors in the building, meaning some office workers will need access to different floors from the lift.

Access Cards

As previously mentioned, access cards are popular in most office blocks as a way of ensuring only the people with right credentials are entering the building, and offices, that they have access to.

I would propose an NFC access card system for the building, and also the lifts. In several panels around the lobby, touchpads can be activated using an NFC access card. When the card is placed near the touchpad, it will show the user which floors they have access to, and they can select one of the options. It will then indicate which lift the user should wait at.

Resident Access

In a similar manner, I would propose the same NFC access card system for residents, though they would only need access to their floor. Instead of displaying options to the user, it would immediately indicate which lift they should wait at.

I don’t see an issue with having an NFC reader within the lift itself, should the resident want to quickly just run into an open lift and summon it to their floor. Whilst it may be stopping off at other floors not located near their floor, I would say this is the resident’s prerogative.

What if the resident wants to visit a friend who lives on a different floor?

In this scenario, I would treat the resident as I would any other visitor. They should call first via the building’s visitor interface, and request access before a lift is summoned for them. For this reason, a visitor access panel could also be set up on each floor, as well as in the lobby (to avoid residents having to go down to the lobby every time they want to go to a different floor).

Those Forgetful Residents and Office Workers

Nobody’s perfect. At some point, a resident will leave their access card on the kitchen counter, or the office worker will get to the lobby and realise their access card is all the way back home. Ooopsie.

Lets start with the resident — they can call up to their apartment and ask someone home to let them in so they can get their access card. But what if nobody is home?

I propose a ‘Forgot my card’ option within the Visitor’s access panel, which allows residents to go through a ‘Forgot my Password’ type of process, to regain a one time access to the building.

This can take the form of a verification access code that can be sent via SMS to their phone. Perhaps add in biometric security, asking for a fingerprint or face scan to ensure they are who they say they are.

If there are any problems, then there should be a 24 hour staffed desk, where residents can go to prove their identity with security, who can verify and provide access to the building. (I imagine a 24 hour staffed desk isn’t a tall order for a building with 1000 floors.)

For office workers, it’s a little easier. If they’ve left their access code at home, they can use the same ‘Forgot my card’ interface to contact a co-worker, who can vouch for their forgetful colleague, and grant them access to the building under their responsibility. For all intents and purposes, they would be treated as a visitor until they have their access card back with them.

Access for Building Support Staff

Some maintenance staff in the building, such as electricians and plumbers, will require open access to almost every floor. For these users, they would essentially be given a skeleton key — an NFC access card which, when scanned, enables them to enter which floor they want to access through a numerical entry keypad interface.

There are clear security implications to the existence of such a keycard, and additional measures can be put in place to protect users of the building, such as these open access keycards needing an additional verification (via PIN number entry) or biometric check (fingerprint, face scan, etc). The card would also be able to be remotely disabled if reported as lost/stolen.

This Approach to the 1000 Floor Building Elevator

I’ve approached this problem by looking at the needs of the user, and the building overall, rather than concentrating on the interface first.

I’m sure there are many holes in my design and scenarios which haven’t been considered within the constraints I’ve set, which I encourage to be shared in the comments section.

The approach I’ve taken has considered the following:

  • The different groups of people who would be using this building, and their specific user needs.
  • Security implications, dictating who has access to which floors, and the anonymity and privacy of those in the building.

Things which I’ve chosen to overlook are:

  • The speed and size of the lift. I’m not actually trying to design the lift for a 1000 floor building, because the scenario itself isn’t plausible.
  • Number of lift shafts and system required to ensure constant flow of people. Again, the idea of a 1000 floor building is absurd at this point.
  • The need for retail units. I don’t know many skyscrapers with a shopping mall built into it other than on the ground floor (which is usually publicly accessible) so I’ve overlooked this requirement.

Though I don’t claim to be a UI Designer, by looking at an approach from the Product Manager’s viewpoint, I’ve attempted a different way of developing a solution to this problem.

Let me know any thoughts, opinions or things I’ve missed out or not considered in the comments!

 

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