Ups and downs

I’ve written about my awesome year as bike messenger twice in the past. This post makes it the third and likely last, and it’s even weirder than the previous ones. It all started with this elevator control panel:

Misplaced alarm button
Misplaced alarm button

As a messenger, you spend a substantial amount of time in elevators. Of course, in Genève or Lausanne, it’s nothing compared to New York for example, but enough to notice a number of things. The first couple of times I rode the pictured elevator, I thought to myself that the alarm button was very unfortunately placed where the close-door button should have been. I was wondering if at one point during a delivery I might push the alarm instead of the close-door button. Sure enough it happened. I then decided that I wanted to find out how many of these badly designed elevator panels were out there in Genève. So during my elevator rides, besides bagging and unbagging a delivery or a package, I started taking snapshots of all the different panels I could find. I’m a front-end engineer, so part of my job consists of thinking about the user interface and user experience aspect of software. People can be really picky and go crazy about small details on website or apps. It doesn’t however seem to be the case for elevators. Maybe their interaction is short enough not to bother. But when you’re a bike messenger, you ride a lot of elevators.

The panels

Some of the first pictures I took are missing parts of the elevator control panels, because at the beginning I was only focusing on the open-door, close-door and alarm button layouts. I then started shooting the whole panel. I encountered 175 different panels, which I abstracted below. The panels’ buttons follow this color scheme:

This looks a bit like a city skyline:


I did not write any algorithm that finds similarities. However, when you eye through the list you can notice some patterns. For example, the ones with go-up and go-down buttons stand out a bit, because there are very few of them:

They’re also really peculiar, because you basically have no choice for the floor. The single-column elevator panel layout with no open/close-door buttons, but with alarm and stop buttons also stands out:

If you look at their pictures – you can click on the elevator figure – you’ll notice that most of them are fairly old elevators. They most likely don’t have open/close-door buttons, because their doors have hinges and cannot be automated like sliding doors. Then there’s the less obvious pattern of the alarm/close-door/open-door buttons combination in the following elevators:

Some elevators have their floor selection buttons arranged in a zigzag:

Most importantly, you can clearly see that more or less any possible combination of alarm/close-door/open-door buttons exists, which is exactly what I wanted to document. This lack of pattern is actually the biggest pattern. The alarm button in the middle, but the close-door or the open-door button on either side:

The alarm button on the left:

The alarm button on the right:

The alarm button surrounded by close-door and open-door buttons on both sides:

The alarm button on top or below the close-door and open-door buttons:

Well, you get the idea.

Floor numbering

There’s obviously a Wikipedia section about the floor numbering in buildings. Countries like China for example sometimes ban the number 4 because it is homophonous to the Chinese word for “death”[1]. In Genève, I haven’t noticed any such weirdness. The ground floor usually is 0, R – for “Rez” – or RC – for “Rez-de-chaussée”. There seems to be a convention to mark the ground floor in green. Floors above the ground are simply numbered 1, 2, 3 etc. Floors below the ground are either numbered negatively like -1, -2, -3, named 1S, 2S, 3S or S1, S2, S3. If there is only 1 underground floor, it might be called SS, which stands for “sous-sol” – literally under ground. There are of course exceptions.

panels with decreasing floor numbers if read from top to bottom, left to right
highest floor number

With a highest floor number of 18, Genève is definitely no Manhattan.

Some stats

The thing that started all this was the relative positioning of the open-door and close-door buttons. So here are some stats[2] about it:

where the close-door and open-door buttons are on 1 line
where the close-door and open-door buttons are below each other
where the close-door button is left of the open-door button
where the close-door button is on top of the open-door button
with a close-door but no open-door button
with an open-door and a close-door button
with an open-door but no close-door button
with more than 1 close-door button
with more than 1 open-door button
with neither an open-door nor a close-door button

You know how they say that usually those open-door and close-door buttons don’t do anything? That repeatedly pressing them just makes you feel like the time waiting for the doors to open or close passes faster? I did not have that impression. Most of the time, the buttons seemed functional and reactive. I would press once, and the door would move.

What are the pictograms used for the open-door and the close-door buttons?

with doors of type arrows-and-doors
with doors of type arrows-only
with doors of type man-pictogram

What buttons do elevators have?

with at least 1 alarm button
with at least 1 close-door button
with at least 1 stop button
with at least 1 go-down button
with at least 1 go-up button
with at least 1 interphone button
with at least 1 keyhole
with at least 1 open-door button
with at least 1 phone button

It looks almost as if the alarm button is mandatory. Maybe the open-door button as well, at least on recent elevators.

What type of buttons do elevators have?

with buttons of type 2D
with buttons of type 3D
with buttons of type touch

Touch panels are the worst. If you’re wearing gloves or if your hands are wet, they simply do not work.

What other kind of information is shown on elevators panels?

with a max persons indication
with a max weight indication
with braille labels
with companies labels

It may seem bad that only 14% of elevators have braille labels, but a lot of elevators probably don’t need them because the floor numbers are engraved, so you can more or less “read” them with your fingers. Or maybe that’s more like a coincidental support for blind folks than good intention.

With the information about weight limits, the acceptable average weight of a person can be calculated:

average person weight

Of the 24 elevators that have an indication of a maximum of persons, here’s how the number of persons is distributed:

3 persons max
4 persons max
5 persons max
8 persons max
10 persons max

The same, but for the maximum allowed weight:

240 kg
320 kg
400 kg
500 kg
630 kg
750 kg

The distribution of the number of button columns looks like this:

1 column
2 columns
3 columns
4 columns

So what is the most generic control panel?

If we take all elements marked with a in the previous section, we can build a generic control panel:

Furthermore, the elevator would probably fit 4 people weighting a total max of 320 kg.

More oddities

Here’s an unordered list of some more weird things about these 175 elevators. As you can see, there’s something remarkable about pretty much each one of them:

I love you if you clicked on all of them so far, but there’s more!

That’s it. Thanks for reading :)

  1. in a recent episode of the Hello Internet podcast, Brady Haran and CGP Grey mention this Chinese weirdness ↩︎

  2. here’s the data and the code ↩︎