Hot at work? Adjust the thermostat. In a hurry to get downstairs? Push the elevator's close door button. Need to cross the street? Push the pedestrian crosswalk button, 10 times if necessary.
However, like the Staples “easy” button, some of these buttons may actually be “placebo buttons,” doing nothing but delivering the pleasing sensation that you've taken power over a couple seconds of your day.
These buttons have been under the scrutiny of the media recently, with stories saying that crosswalk buttons, open door and close door elevator buttons and even office thermostats are often nonfunctioning.
However, Oklahoma City seems to be staying away from placebo buttons.
For example, Stuart Chai, city traffic engineer for Oklahoma City, said all of the city's approximately 750 traffic pedestrian crossing signals at intersections that include crosswalks are fully functioning, with the exception of any that may be in need of repair.
“If we've got buttons that are out there, they work. We don't have any placebos. You press a button, you're going to activate the pedestrian phases for that intersection,” Chai said.
That's a far cry from findings from a 2010 ABC investigation that found only one functioning crosswalk button in Austin, Texas; Gainesville, Fla., and Syracuse, NY.
The New York Times reported in 2004 that the city had deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals.
Many Oklahoma City crosswalks include “accessible pedestrian signals,” Chai said, that comply to guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, with auditory and visual guidance for the hearing or vision impaired.
“As we make modifications to intersections, we make the ADA required improvements,” Chai said.
The open door and close door buttons in elevators may be a slightly different story. In many elevators built after about 1990, the buttons are primarily intended for use by emergency personnel and often don't function as you might expect, confirmed Steve Schmidt, vice president of American Elevator Co. in Oklahoma City.
“That is often true. Especially with newer systems that can be configured with different options,” Schmidt said. Often, elevator doors are set to remain open for about five seconds to allow passengers on and off. In some configurations, the door close button will shorten that time. The open door and close door buttons do have extended functionality for emergency workers. To access these functions, a key is often required.
“A common mode in an elevator is called independent service. That mode is for building personnel to operate the elevator under their control in a manner so the elevator stops answering all calls, it stands with the doors open until they hold the door close button,” Schmidt said. “The buttons are also always used in fire service operations.”
The elevator doesn't care if you're in a hurry. In most configurations, “the door close button is not going to hurry it any faster,” Schmidt said.
But if the elevator itself is in demand, that could speed up its functioning, Schmidt said. And the door open button should always work, he reassures.
And those controversial office thermostats? When you adjust the temperature in your office or cubicle farm, is the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system really going to respond to your request? A 2003 survey published in Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News stated that 72 percent of climate control experts surveyed admitted to installing dummy thermostats.
Several Oklahoma City commercial climate control companies said they'd never installed a dummy thermostat and, in fact, had never received a request to do so.
“In a business like ours it would be misleading. We're not in the business to trick people,” said Jeremy Miner, a service technician at Advanced Air Specialist.
But it wouldn't be hard to do, he said, and some large companies that have their own climate control specialists might be installing dummy thermostats or regulating the allowable variances in temperature.
And, if you read the instruction manual, Miner said you could set your home or commercial thermostats to operate within a four-degree range for energy-saving reasons.
The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration report included a quip about an employee who always complained of being hot.
“Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat. We ran the main air line to it inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we just attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.),” said Greg Perakes, a heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration instructor in Tennessee. That's jargon for saying the company installed a noisemaker that sounded like the hiss of air coming from the air conditioner vent.
“When she heard the hissing air coming from inside the I-beam, she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”
It's all about the natural human condition of wanting to be in control of our surroundings and time management.
Feeling in control?
Steve Souders, Google's head performance engineer, recently gave a speech about how illusions of speed can be more important to the user experience than actual speed itself, especially when related to the ever-speedier Internet. Nobody wants to wait for a slow Web page to load.
In his speech at the O'Reilly Velocity conference, he said his favorite example of the placebo button effect is on his wife's Fiat 500. The car has half the horsepower of a Ford Fiesta but it features a “sport” button, perhaps to be used if you're drag racing a Fiesta.
Another example of the placebo effect of saving time occurred at the Houston Airport. Passengers were upset about walking one minute to the baggage claim carousel, then having to wait six minutes for their bags. To solve the problem, the airport simply increased the length of walking time to the baggage claim to six minutes, thereby fooling the passengers into thinking they're saving time when they only have a one-minute wait for their bags.
“People weren't standing there bored, staring at nothing,” Souders said. Install mirrors in elevators for the same effect.
So, though the technology used for crosswalks, elevators and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems vary from place to place, keep on pressing those buttons, if for no other reason that the short-lived boost of satisfaction you'll receive. And, if you're lucky, the button will lead to its intended action.