Monday, August 29, 2005

Intellikey: Should a smart key make me feel dumb?

We’d taken office space in a very nice set of temporary office suite while our new space was under construction. In this space you access the elevator and front door with the kind of passkey system with which we’re all familiar (you swipe a thick white card over a contact for a beep and a green light.) However, the rest rooms are protected with a special “intelligent key” made by a company called Intellikey, which they purport will “preserve your security investment while providing enhanced access control.” The technology is, in fact, pretty interesting. Each “smart” key carries an individual’s access privileges so buildings don’t have to program the locks for each door. (Apparently this is something you had to do in the past, though it seems to me that cards deliver the same benefit, but what do I know.) Privileges can be turned on or off instantly. This is all good stuff if you’re in the facilities business.

But what if you’re an employee looking to, say, wash your hands? It’s something I do several times a day. Can’t help it, it just happens. Well, here’s how my super-key really works. I put it into the doorknob and wait a second or two for a beep. I then have to turn the key about ¾ of a revolution to the left, hold the key there, and use my other hand to turn the door handle about a 1/2 turn to the right and open the door. Sounds simple? Well, if I turn the key before it beeps, I’m shut out and have to start again. Turn the door handle first – same thing. Turn the key the wrong way – start over. By the way, any one of these “failures” means pulling out the key, waiting five seconds for the lock to re-set, and starting all over again.

In other words, under stress – keeping in mind this is the restroom we’re talking about – you have to un-learn a lifetime of experience with locks and keys. (Or in a NYC office building, asking the receptionist for a key to the bathroom in the hallway, each key with its attendant, low-tech anti-theft device, typically a block of wood, a big kitchen spoon, or some other object too large to slip into a pocket.) It’s a classic story in which a product is “improved” based on a great idea and compelling value proposition – “better security management for building managers” – that doesn’t consider the scenario in which the product is used. I’m no Luddite, to be sure. There are times in the progress of human development when it makes sense for all of us to buckle down and learn a new technology. Slide rules to calculators, cassettes to CD’s; in each case the user value is clear. More complicated keys to the men’s room? Here the end user value just isn’t clear, and there’s just no good reason I can see to force an employee to learn a new way to operate.