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Removing too much

In the Apple Store in Tokyo you’ll find a remarkable glass elevator, finished in Apple’s trademark brushed aluminum. What makes this elevator unlike almost any other in the world is that there are no buttons: none to call the elevator, and none inside. The lift shuttles between the four floors of the store, stopping at each one it passes.

Apple has reduced the elevator to its core: a platform for taking people between levels. But instead of feeling simple, it feels wrong. The elevator leaves you feeling unsettled, frustrated, and anxious. Will it stop at the floor I want? Why is it stopping when no one is getting on or off?

Apple has removed a crucial ingredient: control.

Without the sense of control (calling and directing the elevator) or the sense that a visible person is in control (the guy in front who just pushed a button for your floor) and the feedback that it’s working (the button that illuminates when you push it), all you can do is hand yourself over to the machine and hope.

In the buttonless elevator, people waste time and attention worrying. Removing all control doesn’t simplify the experience, it complicates it.

I’ve come across the same problem trying to get information from flight maps on airplane video screens. They switch from world map to local map to flight data agonizingly slowly. Not having any control makes that wait seem even longer.

People need to feel in control. They prefer to be pilots rather than passengers. When they’re at the mercy of chance or hidden forces, they become so anxious that they invent superstitious behaviors that help them regain a sense of being in charge, like avoiding the cracks in the pavement or wearing a “lucky” shirt.

The trick is to give people control over outcomes. In other words, enough control to stop them from worrying that their basic needs won’t be met, but not so much that they’re wasting time making choices they don’t need to make. (How fast should the elevator travel? How long should the doors stay open?)

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