Beautiful example of the visualization of a story
Kinetic typography used to present The Girl Effect

Design means putting yourself in the user's shoes

Design is about many things. Above all, it's about clarity, and intentions and about putting yourself in the position of the end users (or the customers, students, audience, etc.). When designs are not well thought out, even though it may all look good from our point of view, users get frustrated, confused, or even angry. Anyone who has used a poorly designed user interface on a mobile phone, for example, or gotten lost while following the signs on the freeway in a new city understands these feelings. And anyone who is squinting to see a figure or read a quote on a PowerPoint slide is experiencing a bad design of sorts. I always say the lessons are all around. I love examples of poor design, even for the simplest of things, because they are occasions to learn. Here's one.


On the road
Last week I checked in to one of the nice Hilton hotels in Japan. As is common in Japan, one of the staff took me to my room, opened the door, put my bags down, gave me the keys and left. I then immediately changed and went for a run before dinner. When I returned to my room I inserted the key the same way I have in any other hotel I've stayed in, with the front side and the hotel logo right side up. It did not work. I tried it again slowly, then quickly. Nothing. "Wait, do I have the right room?" I thought. Now I doubted my memory. Maybe the endorphins were clouding my memory. So I went back down to the front desk to sort it out. Before I could speak to the front desk staff, another hotel staff member asked me if there was any problem. I said it was my card, though I was not sure. He knew immediately what the problem was. He turned the card over and said that the card must be inserted with the back of the card face up. He laughed apologetically and said that this was not an unusual problem. "Ah, sou desu ka?" I said.

Even though I may have glanced at the back and seen the arrow (though text is unreadable), the large magnetic stripe "told me" to turn the card over. The gradient to the left on the front side (three shades of blue from dark to light) acts — at least on some sort of subconscious level — as a kind if directional cue.

With my glasses on I can actually never read the print. Like many people, I am near sighted, by the time I extend the card far enough away to be in focus, the 7pt or 8pt font is too small to read in the low light of a hotel hallway. Without my glasses, I can read the small print if I hold the card about 12 inches (31 cm) from my face. When I turn the card over at the height of the key reader, it is 24 inches (61 cm) from my eyes; text is unreadable. I assumed the arrow meant "this end in" but the stripe implies that you turn over the card, just like every other type of card (ATM, credit, club memberships, etc.).

On the road (yet) again
This week I was presenting for management at the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo. The key pictured below is similar to keys I have seen in other parts of the world and around Japan. It seems pretty obvious that the side with the logo and pattern and subtle but clear arrow is the the front and that that side should be facing up while inserting the key; there is no reason for a "this side up" message. The address and large stripe tells me that that is the back of the key. No confusion.


This may seem like a very small thing, and it is. But the little things matter...and they add up. And this little experience with the cards is a simple reminder that graphic designs work best when they are created with the user in mind.

Speaking of the Tokyo Ritz-Carlton
Ricco_garr There are a lot of great hotels in Tokyo and the service is extraordinary in all of them. But the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo really does stand alone in my book. I don't stay there very often; typical business hotels are fine with me. But if you are a marketer or are simply interested in experiencing the intangibles that makeup such a powerful brand, you really should try to stay a night there sometime. You do not have to be in the hotel business; the lessons you can learn from the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo way of doing business and treating customers can be applied to other businesses as well. The man on my right in the picture above is Ricco Deblank the General Manager of the hotel. Ricco has amazing insights on branding and the hospitality industry. The working title of his new book in Japanese is "Passion for Service" (he has two other best-sellers out now in Japanese). I've known Ricco for many years and he truly does have a passion for service and he understands that the little things matter. Little things like presentation in all its myriad forms (such as this small detail).

Above is a photo I snapped during one of the short group discussions during my presentation. Notice the placement of the MacBook (behind the projector). This placement worked very well and allowed me to always have my eyes on the audience; peripheral glances at the computer screen — which no one could see — is all one needs if you know the material.


Mike Sporer

At first glance, the guy in front looked like Donald Trump!

You are so right. Small things and thoughtful design make a difference.

Lee Potts

Hi Garr,

I got to stay at what was the Ritz-Carlton (it's now part of another chain) in Pasadena twice. They were filming interior scenes for the remake of The Parent Trap during one of my stays. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see Lindsay Lohan.

Relaxing after the meeting on my balcony overlooking the huge, perfectly groomed lawn in the back of the property and watching LA rise up out of the haze as dusk fell is something I'll never forget.

The service was, as one would expect, unforgettable as well.

Sven Türpe

You might want to check out Don Norman's books ( He is a psychologist; in "The Design of Everyday Things" he explains how we interact with our environment and how the environment communicates to us what we can or should do. The underlying idea is that the designer should provide proper cues to make us do the right thing "naturally", and that failure on the designer's part leads to issues in interaction just like the one you describes.

Jan Schultink

I never understand this "this side up"-thing. How much would it cost (more) to double up the reader and produce a device that can read both sides of the card? Getting out of a parking lot with impatient people behind you, getting into a hotel room, worrying about an ATM "eating" your card, it would make life so much easier...

The "bleep" always makes it seem that it is your fault that you put the card upside down (and the queue behind you probably will think the same), while in fact it is the designer's....

Michael Banovsky

I'm not a fan of key cards. In some luxury hotels I've been to, the most elegant and satisfying solution seems to be keys that don't have a serrated edge, rather, three or four ridges for the lock to access the devices digital footprint.

Not only can they be used on either side, but they give you the weight and feel of a key, and not the percieved cheapness of a plastic card. M!

Greg Rouault

Hey Garr,

Good contrast between the Hilton key card and the Ritz-Carlton one. The fact that they know that it is not a rare problem and have not dealt with it is even more alarming as it lacks a certain post-design critical incident response to customer service.

Did you run the stairs back down (or up? again?) to really feel the burn of this one?

Of note: Is Ricco not "in the left of the picture" or "on the left" or actually "on YOUR right"?

Tsahi Levent-Levi

I hate key cards as well. My worst-ever is this one in Paris:
You need to press the button on the door, then point the specific part of the key card at the lock and pray for the green light to appear.
I had a ton of fun standing at the corridor with this one each time I wanted to enter my room.


I had a similar reaction as "m" when I read the "too my right" comment above. It is correct that Ricco is sitting to Garr's right, but you have to put yourself in Garr's seat to get this perspective, rather than from the viewer's seat. Sometimes even an expert can miss the mark of designing "with the user in mind". Interesting irony that it would happen in this post.

And considering the detail the designers put on the back of the Hilton key, I'd bet they THOUGHT they had the user in mind.


I guess I'm confused. Despite your explanation of the magnetic strip, I still don't understand why the BIG arrow didn't convince you to try it with the arrow facing up? I'm not trying to defend the cards because I'm always inserting them incorrectly. But now I always look for the arrow when deciding how to insert the card. If that doesn't work, I try them from every side and direction before trudging back down to the desk. I never thought about looking at the magnetic strip to override the arrow.

Note: don't store the cards near your cell phone if your phone uses a magnet to reseat the cover. I keep learning this one the hard way.

Steve Tu

Thought you might enjoy this site (if you haven't seen it already):

Josh Berry

First time commenting and a recent fan of yours after I ran across your book in the office of HiCue Speakers in Bogotá.

I met Mr. DeBlank when he was back in Osaka. You are correct that he has a passion for service. I remember him saying that the brand [Ritz-Carlton] is in his ladies and gentlemen. Selecting the right person who best represents the image you are trying to create will take you leaps and bounds beyond simple training classes, process redesigns or printing Credo cards.

What was your impression of the management at the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo property and how were your ideas accepted? Thanks for your input.

The comments to this entry are closed.