(Un)foreseen consequences – UX of Black Mesa research facility

Here is a playful way to jog our UX/design muscles: Let’s examine the design of Black Mesa facility from the original Half-Life in terms of safety and usability.

This is a fun article inspired by The Design of Everyday Things.

My report will hopefully shed some light on the design flaws that could’ve promoted the incident and reduce the future risk of another resonance cascade.

Black Mesa is, as we’re going to find out, a mixed bag.

Control room

Firstly, the control room signs.


The physical mapping between the room and the signs is somewhat clear: signs are located on the hallway walls next to control room entrances on both sides. This is good since people entering the room from either side can read it.

But can everyone read it?

Unfortunately, there is not enough contrast between the text (dark red) and its background (black). People with poor eyesight might find it challenging to read it.

Choosing a white background would be much better.


There are rows of identical controls on the wall with no labels. This is a disaster.

The information about the individual controls is located purely in the head of scientists. It’s too easy to make a description-similarity error, especially under pressure, and use the wrong button. The results could be sub-optimal such as tearing a rift between the border world and Earth.

On the plus side, the buttons are grouped into sections (gestalt proximity principle) that hopefully control different things.

Furthermore, what’s the mapping between the equipment in the control room and the machinery of the test chamber? One would imagine clearly labeled controls that would indicate their purpose, controls organized and visually distinct from one another.

There are no such controls in the control room: all we can see are rows of identical buttons, dials and screens with no clear purpose.

I’m no occupational therapist but does this seem like a good posture to you? Clearly, Black Mesa administration doesn’t provide ergonomic training and chairs to its employees.

Employees suffering from neck or back pain are less productive.

Plasma cells

Why did nobody inform people in the control room about this failure? It seems that Black Mesa didn’t establish communication channels dedicated to emergency situations such as this.

They should adopt Toyota’s jidoka.

Test lab access

Controls are similar to those in the control room: identical rows with no labels employing the law of proximity to group related buttons.

With increased stress, people might find it difficult to recall what each control is for. There are easily over 150 controls on this machine. Are employees expected to know each one by heart? These aren’t Pokemon.

Test lab

Again, the same poor-contrast sign as the control room.

The glass covering the lab id below the door sign seems to be filthy.

This tiny detail is one more reason to believe Black Mesa administration is cutting costs. One might start to wonder, what other aspects of the facility operations were neglected?

Rotors controls

On the bright side, rotor controls are a great example of the use of design constraint: lockout.

The lid prevents anyone from accidentally or prematurely activating the rotors. For increased safety, this particular lid is remotely operated from the control room.

Once activated, the red light makes it apparent the rotors are running. A successful activation is accompanied by sound.

However, a red light can mean so many things. Adding a label such as “Rotors active” would be ideal. A good design makes it easy for user to understand the current state of the device.

One might argue the operator is standing right there in front of the rotors and has a clear view of whether the rotors are active or not.

For one, it takes a moment for rotors to start spinning. Furthermore, what if there is a malfunction and the rotors won’t start to spin? The status indicator is helpful for troubleshooting.

The monitor does show a rotating rectangle with no resemblance to actual rotors.

Adding a label or visual representation of rotors next to the buttons would help improve the mapping between the controls and the object being controlled.

Delivery cart

This area is marked with black and yellow stripes. The lift opening is protected by a fence that is lowered only after the cart arrives.

The corners of the fence are equipped with red lights that blink during the lift operation.

This area is lower than the rest of the deck, preventing the cart from being pushed outside its bounds. This makes inserting the crystal sample a breeze.

It’s surprisingly easy to get an electric shock near the pit. Luckily, we had HEV suit during the inspection. A good design prevents user error.

To improve safety, a barrier should be added to prevent people from getting electrocuted by accident.


With everything we saw today… Unforeseen consequences? I think not.


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