By The Metric Maven
The object to the left is an everyday thing, but it is making a clear statement about the designer’s measurement preference. It may not be apparent what the measurement preference is to you. It might not have been to me had I not read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman (suggested to me by Sven). The design of even the simplest of objects is done in a manner that provides information on how the designer intends them to be used. A person will unconsciously take an intended design clue, and use an object as intended. Knives are provided with handles, and one doesn’t stop to think which is the best end to hold in one’s hand after early experience and instruction in childhood. Norman cites research which argues there are at least 30,000 everyday things around us, and decreases the number to 20,000 to state: “Suppose each everyday thing takes only one minute to learn; learning 20,000 of them occupies 20,000 minutes —333 hours about 8 forty hour work weeks.” We have a considerable amount of time invested in learning about our everyday things. When we encounter a can opener, or a scissors, or a potato peeler, we generally know exactly what to expect, how to hold it, and how to use it. One way that a designed object signals how it should be used, is to design it so the ways it may be used are limited, this is called affordance by Norman.
When I worked on the design of televisions, I immediately ran into the idea of affordance. A television motherboard and its chassis were dropped off in my lab, but about seven cables had been disconnected. I protested that it was all apart, and was calmly told by a technician that all the plugs would only go into one place on the motherboard. Indeed, they did, and I was impressed that because of this affordance, I couldn’t make a mistake.
The affordance of the TV motherboard was essentially foolproof, but often designers can’t restrict a user that much, and the affordance involves only discomfort or a subtle tactile clue. Donald Norman offers this:
Take another example of good design. My felt-tipped marking pen has ribs along only one of its sides; otherwise all sides look identical. Careful examination shows that the tip of the marker is angled and makes the best line if the marker is held with the ribbed side up, a natural result if the forefinger rests upon the ribs. No harm results if I hold the marker another way, but the marker writes less well. The ribs are subtle design cue—functional, yet visibly and aesthetically unobtrusive.
Norman also shows numerous door handles as examples. If we see only a push plate on a door, we have no other choice but to push to open the door. A handle which one can readily grasp cues us that we pull to open it. This brings us back to the measuring cup shown above. Its design is pro-metric, as the metric graduations are facing a person’s eyes when it is held with the right hand. About 70-90% of the worlds population are right handed. Right handed Americans using this measuring cup, would find it uncomfortable and unnatural to place the handle on the left. The measuring cup shown is from the period when the US pretended it might go metric. Measuring cups of this same type, which are currently sold in the US, are all designed so that the imperial graduations face one’s eyes when held with the handle on the right. One of mine is shown below:
Measuring cup designs have improved since the 1970s. Some of the ones I now own are “top readable” and only sold (unfortunately) at product parties. Dual scale is always a hindrance to metric adoption, but this set of top reading measuring cups are the best I have encountered. I have visited many cooking stores and looked online, but have yet to find metric-only measuring cups and measuring spoons. The measuring cup shown below appears to have eliminated a right hand bias as well as being easy to read. Now if I could just purchase a metric-only one.
The design of common measuring cups is but one example of subtle anti-metric bias in our everyday things. In a previous blog I mentioned that the design of American “metric” rulers hinders their use because of the presence of a centimeter-millimeter dual unit scale, and the rounding of the origin end of one particular metric scale. The origin of the inch scale is placed on the square end, which is much more natural for measuring. For about 10% of our population, which are left-handed, the current dual scale measuring cups are adequately designed for metric use. On the other hand both metric and inch ruler scales have equally low affordance for left-handed people. Left hand rulers exist which have the numbering from right to left to increase the ease of use by a left handed person.
My father gave me an expandable wrench for my last birthday, which has mm markings on one side, and had inch on the other (yes, I ground off the inch scale). If one holds the wrench as a right handed person would, the inch scale faces your eyes. On the opposite side is the metric scale, which has low affordance for a right-handed person. The wrench is nice because it allows one to immediately see what size a bolt head is in mm, but it is very cumbersome for me to use, as I’m right handed.. I have a better understanding of what left handed people deal with on an everyday basis in our world.
These examples point to the fact that a preference for imperial measures is designed into our US tools, and US everyday things. But I’ve been assured by non-binding legislation that the US prefers metric measurements. Here is some background:
The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 was signed into law by Ronald Reagan. It amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, yet didn’t have the word metric in the title of the legislation. President Reagan and Congress apparently were concerned that the voluntary nature of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was not clear enough.
Section 3 of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is amended to read as follows:
SEC. 3. It is therefore the declared policy of the United States
(1) to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce;
(2) to require that each Federal agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurement, grants, and other business-related activities, Except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units;
Well, it has been the case since the 19th Century, that switching to metric is always “impractical” in the US. Apparently there was much concern among our legislators that we have an exception: “such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units;” Apparently Liberia and Myanmar (the last two non-metric holdouts in the world) might flood the US (and the world?) with non-metric products, and thereby destroy what’s left of our uncompetitive non-metric US economy. Thank you President Reagan and Congress for the foresight to see the threat and protect us from the economic danger posed by these two tiny countries, and making an exception. Clearly the 1992 date was meaningless and arbitrary. It made it look like the government was taking action, when in fact it was not. Metric is 21 years past the expiration date for becoming “preferred.”
One can easily see how “preferred” metric is in the US simply by inspecting the design of our everyday things and everyday tools. The legislation is feckless, and crass hypocrisy. It is in line with the strange belief that if we cling onto the trappings of our past, the future may be indefinitely postponed. This emotional response, written in legislation, only postpones the day when reality intervenes, and forces Americans to realize that fantasy is no match for reality. I’m not willing to wait another 150 years hoping America will come to its senses. We need legislation that compels industry to design and make available true metric products, during a short compulsory switchover by industry, government, and education to metric. What we have now is legislation celebrating the the metric system as the preferred system of the future and makes sure it will always remain so.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.