Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I live at the top of a steep hill. The main road up the hill has been gritted, and after the first few hours, was perfectly passable. The side roads have not. The pavements have not, and a series of adults dragging their tots and toddlers up and down the hill on toboggans have compressed them into a sheet of ice. (I need to point out, smugly, that I, of course, have taken a spade to the ice so the pavement outside my house is walkable.)

I became incensed when listening to the radio, when there was the normal interview with a Canadian, or a Swede, or someone from some other northerly environment, saying “We have X metres of snow a year and we cope, so why is Britain brought to a standstill every year”.

OK, all you UX people out here, why does it happen?

Firstly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so it is not worth investing an enormous amount in machinery that may lie idle three years out of four. Secondly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so there isn’t a culture of dealing with it co-operatively. Our local council appointed snow wardens this year, so now the bend that I got stuck on last time it froze like this has been gritted by a public-spirited chap who was willing to take the responsibility, but most people don’t understand the need to contribute. Thirdly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so people don’t know how to drive in it. Fourthly, it doesn’t happen reliably, so the road infrastructure is designed for rain, not snow.

Those are all UX problems. How do you design for something that people only deal with occasionally (possibly never)?

The other problem is also a type of UX problem. Snow in England and Wales is normally at a temperature where the weather switches between freezing and thawing, so we have to deal with ice as much as snow. Many of the solutions used in other countries rely on there being a nice consistent layer of cold snow, rather than one which melts and then freezes. Importing a solution wholesale that is a perfect fit for a different situation is not always the right way to go.

So, who sets the priorities as to whether this problem needs to be solved?

Question one.
Who bears the cost of preparing to solve this occasional problem? In this country, it’s the local councils (funded by grants from central government and the rates).
Question two.
Who gets the benefits of solving this problem? We all do, but especially businesses, because people can travel freely.
Question three.
Who educates people as to how to behave in snow? Teaching them how to drive? Well, you’re not going to put that on the test, because it won’t happen. You can’t even put motorway driving on the test because some test centres are in towns that are too far from a motorway. ||Maybe there should be a special, “Hey, it’s going to snow next week, everyone in the UK sign on for your one-day ‘how to drive in snow’ course.” Somehow, that doesn’t quite work.

Clear your pavements? Well, how to change the culture of a country so that clearing pavements becomes the norm? Do those snow wardens need to go round knocking on people’s doors saying “I see that your pavement is not in a walkable condition”. Hey, I could go for that. Lets make all pavements walkable. No parking on them. No heaps of rubbish blocking them. No enormous bins and signs and…. I’m ranting. Calm down. After all, one of the fabulous and wonderful things about snow is that people get out of their cars and walk. They greet each other and smile and walk in the road because the pavements are slippery but the roads have been gritted. They co-operate.

Maybe it’s worth having a day like that, just occasionally, where people are forced to drop out of normal life. Maybe UX designers should consider, just occasionally, putting a glitch in the UX that says “This isn’t working today, why not go and enjoy yourself instead, talk to someone who you don’t usually say hello to, bake bread, spend time with your children, see if you can stop the leak round the windows.”

Oh, they exist. It’s called a bug (or possibly a feature). And everyone gets very cross when they find them. Next time you meet a bug, email the guys so they know about it (otherwise it won’t get fixed) and enjoy your brief minute of snow day.

And I’ve just looked out the window and seen someone taken their cello down hill on a sledge. How lovely is that? Happy snow day, everyone.