2 December 2015

What Is NOT Happening: The Wisdom of the Insect Screen

When we analyze a situation (or simply are awed by it), we look at what is happening and, naturally, try to understand why. When designing something or when working on a new product / service, we focus on what it enables us (people) to do.

This is all perfectly natural, yet it is only (I dare say, small) part of the picture. When analyzing a situation we need to try and see What is not happening. Of course, pigs don’t fly and aliens don’t land in your backyard, but these are extreme examples. Whenever something happens, many (related or not) other things don’t happen. If it is too abstract, it will make lots of sense in a couple of paragraphs.

When designing / working on a new product or service the focus is on what it will enable people to do (better). Very rarely, we focus on what the product or service will prevent people from doing. This is only natural, but, nonetheless, what a product / service prevents from happening is at least (equally) important.

The Wisdom of the Insect Screen

On a personal note: For a long time I had in mind the notion of what isn’t happening and non-events on a very abstract level, but only recently found a great, down to earth, illustration: The Insect Screen.

When my wife and I moved to the Washington DC area (USA), we didn’t fully realize the issue with insects (it was early March and there was snow). Virginia is a warm and humid area – a paradise for bugs. When we picked the apartment in which we now live, we took for granted the insect screens at the windows. For those who don’t know, an insect screen is a fine-metal-wire-grid fixed on the outside of (opening) windows that allows for the circulation of air and prevents insects from entering.

That’s all good and rather simple. It’s not rocket science and makes perfect sense. Moreover, the product – insect screen – does what it is supposed to do: it prevents insects from entering the house. It also enables people to open windows without having to be concerned about flies, mosquitos and other bugs creating nuisance.

The insect screen, however, has further implications. While it was designed to keep insects out, it also makes it difficult for things to get out of the apartment through the windows.

A couple of days ago, a Facebook friend posted that her cat took a dive from the 6th (7th by American standards) floor. While I’m glad that the cat is alive (though a bit shook-up), I have to say that this accident wouldn’t have happened if the windows had (fixed) insect screens.

In my country of birth (Romania), though not only, many people living in apartment buildings have a habit of throwing out trash out the window. While most often this restricts to cigarette buds, shaking out carpets, blankets or table cloths, sometimes it happens to be larger items such as trash bags. Many apartment buildings have small yards around them, but these behaviors happen even in buildings that are facing directly to the sidewalks of large streets and passers-by might get some breadcrumbs on their heads.

These negligent, inconsiderate and even anti-social behaviors would be impossible if windows would have (fixed) insect screens.    

On a more positive note, while insect screens are designed to keep out insects, they also keep out other things such as leaves, flying plastic bags, birds and even large rain drops. Insect screens are impotent when there’s a large rainstorm, but if the rain is mild, you can still keep windows opened without having to worry about moping the floor.

If a banal product such as the insect screen has so many non-event implications, shouldn’t you think creatively on what your product’s non-event implications are?  

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