Wet Stuff

After the "hot stuff" article of a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well shift focus towards another similarly inane topic, like showers. You see, one thing they seem really good at in the U.S. is doing showers (the bathroom type, not the weather type - though Redmond does seem to have an equal share of both). Even when I stay in relatively down-market hotels, the rooms always seem to have a good shower. In fact, in one I used a while ago, I actually get a wet room; though my wife would probably suggest that any bathroom I use is a wet room after I'm finished.

So how difficult is it to provide a good shower? Let's face it, you only need three components and one remote service: a pipe in the wall for the water to come out of, a hole in the floor for it to run away, and a knob that controls the temperature. As for a remote service, someone has to provide hot and cold water, but I guess if you intend to install a shower that's a given anyway. Yet, here in Ye Olde England, we don't seem to have grasped the technology quite so well. Our house has what the builder referred to as "a top quality shower" installed. What this means is that the tray doesn't sag and crack when you stand on it (even if you do need to climb a 10 inch high step to get in), the cabinet panels are real toughened glass (instead of plastic), and the shower itself is a top of the range electric thing from one of the major manufacturers.

So why is it so useless? My wife always knows when I'm in the shower from the swearing and clattering noises because it's so small I keep banging my elbows against the side. And if you drop the soap, you have to turn off the shower and get out to pick it up because there isn't room to bend down. Not only that, the flow in wintertime is so poor you have to run around to get wet (or you would have to if there were room). But the worst part is that you spend the first ten minutes of your shower trying to get the temperature right, even if it was perfect yesterday, and then you get scalded when someone turns a tap on elsewhere in the house.

Now, I'm not a professional UI designer or an expert on domestic plumbing, but reckon the only thing you are really interested in with a shower is the temperature of the water coming out of the pipe in the wall (I'm assuming here it's not that hard to provide a hole in the floor for the water to run away). Yet the "top quality" thing installed in our bathroom has two user input devices: a three-position switch marked "high", "medium", and "low", and a knob labelled "flow" that goes from "low" to "high". Notice no mention of the important requirement "temperature". The idea is that you randomly fiddle with these two controls until the temperature is about right, and then hope nobody turns on a tap. Of course, there is a built-in delay while the two controls mutually interact with each other, so that any adjustment you make takes a minute or two to affect the water temperature. And the final temperature depends on the current water pressure and the incoming water temperature, so you can guarantee it will be different every time.

Just think if we built our software applications like this. Instead of Windows having a volume control in the taskbar, it would have a selector for choosing the particular integrated circuit on the sound card you want to use, and a slider for changing the voltage you send to it; and any changes you make would have no effect until the next song started playing. Or your enterprise application would have two controls where you entered the price of an order: a set of option buttons where you specify the number of zeros in the amount, and a button you click repeatedly until it randomly shows the actual value you want.

So, getting back to the wet stuff, we decided to have the shower replaced by something more usable. Of course, the main problem here is that this process involves a plumber - especially as we had to have the heating radiator moved to make room for a bigger shower cabinet. I don't know what it's like in other places, but here it tends to resemble the Flanders & Swann "The Gasman Cometh" affair. The process basically involves:

  • Phone three plumbers to ask them to come and give you a quote, and arrange appropriate times and dates (preferably, so they don't all arrive together).
  • Rearrange the dates as required when they phone to say that urgent jobs have come up, and they can't make the agreed date or time.
  • If one actually does turn up, show them what's required and listen to the sucking-teeth-and-raising-eyebrow noises as they tell you how complicated (and, of course, expensive) the job will be. "Hmmm, that's a concrete block wall so it will be difficult getting pipes in," and "we'll have to find a way to get hot water from the tank." Like they didn't expect that installing a shower would involve pipes and water...?
  • Put up with two weeks of dust, banging noises, no water, and visits from various tradesmen; including two plumbers, a tiler, an electrician, two delivery van drivers, and some guy who just seems to have wandered in off the street to see what's going on.

Mind you, what really amazed me is that the original builder and the plumber who is installing the new one seem to have come from different centuries. To save making holes in the wall, he suggested just having a single pipe hanging down from the ceiling and a "remote management console" fixed to the wall. While I initially had visions of an MMC snap in running on my domain controller, it seems that all it needs is some magic box hidden up in the attic and a neat little keypad thing with a built-in LCD display stuck on the wall inside the shower.

Wow, is this 21st century or what? Turns out that it's all wireless and automatic. You just dial the temperature you want, press the green button, wait until it beeps, and jump into the cubicle. Of course, being a confirmed technophobe, I wasn't fully convinced. Will it have Ctrl-Alt-Del buttons? Will I need to edit the registry when it goes wrong? And what happens when my wireless router finds it - will I get scalded every time my wife sends an email? Somehow, you just know that the reality will be different from the advertised nirvana.

However, the plumber then mentioned to my wife that it comes with a second "slave" remote unit that she can put by the bed, so she can turn on the shower before she gets up in the morning. Or even keep it in the car so she can have the shower running and ready when she pulls up in the driveway after a hard day at work. At this point, any influence I may have had in the decision-making process was lost.

Wouldn't it be great if persuading clients to buy your latest and greatest software creation were that easy...?

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