when lower means higher

Last week a metaphor nearly fooled me into buying a household appliance I don’t need. Let me explain…

For historical reasons I do most of the ironing in our household, and recently the steam-iron had been causing me problems by overheating. It seemed to be getting gradually worse, to the point that I was increasingly afraid of burning something. Over the course of a couple of weeks I had gradually moved the temperature setting further and further down the scale until it was at the lowest setting – but to no avail. I identified the replacement model we should buy, but before doing so I thought I would make sure the thermostat wasn’t simply furred up inside (we live in an area of very hard water, which had already accounted for a steam-iron and two kettles, so this was a distinct possibility). I don’t de-scale the iron often, so I dug out the instruction manual to remind me what to do. And as I was scanning the little diagrams showing the iron’s controls I realised what was wrong. I had set the temperature control to MAXIMUM!

The temperature scale consisted of a vertical slider on which the markings had become illegible (to my eye). As it turned out, LOWER on the scale meant that the temperature of the iron was set HIGHER. With no words or symbols to guide me, I had assumed the opposite – that LOWER would mean LOWER. No that’s wrong, because “assumed” implies conscious thought. I believe that metaphorical structures such as this – LOWER = LESS – are laid down when we are babies playing with blocks. I simply expected LOWER to mean LOWER.

Okay, mea culpa for not reading the manual etc etc. But why design something in such a way that the user is forced to read instructions in order to overcome an innate metaphorical response? Why design against the flow?

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