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STOP signs don’t need exclamation points

Posted by Keshav Subramanya on March 18, 2009


Take a downtown street corner, any one.  Look around and take in the number of constructs around you that are trying to tell you things:

  • Signs: Some laid down right on the street, some mounted on posts, some hanging under signals, some that require your attention, and others that you may choose to ignore.
  • Glyphs: Universal shorthand for complicated signage: U-turn permitted only from inner of two turn lanes, swing right or you’ll end up in the median, stay on your side of the line or you’ll go kersplat.
  • Colors: Painted kerbs, flashing indicators, virtual walls made of paint, law enforcement and maintenance vehicles in their unambiguous colors, trademarked tints in corporate logos.
  • Sounds: Traffic noises, your radio, Lucy (or whatever you’ve named your GPS’s voice), beeps from the Walk sign coming on, someone’s subwoofer making your rearview shimmy to music that you can’t hear, maybe an ambulance wailing somewhere far behind you.

So, you’re there at that street corner with all that input — which of it all really matters to you?  Maybe the “Speed Limit 40” sign with its little “Speed Checked by Radar” postscript really matters… but only if you’re driving an automobile (or if you’re the lidar cop parked nearby) – but otherwise, do you care?  Does a sign saying the two right lanes will take you to the freeway make you jockey your way into those lanes, out of them, or did you mentally white-out that sign without even thinking about it?

Since you’re a savvy user of your city’s road system, you’ve learnt to continuously gather data from those sources of input, instantly filter out noise that doesn’t belong in the immediate experience and then process the rest… but have you noticed just how much the creators of that input considered you when creating their messages?  Why does the right turn arrow look normal when you drive over it, but looks horribly misshapen when you walk past it?  Why are speed limit signs downtown two feet tall, when they’re four feet tall on the freeway?

The point of any good user experience should be just that – users should be able to easily get to that input that pertains to them.  The building blocks of technology, the gee-whiz of gadgetry – they exist to create things that keep the end user at the center of each constructed experience.

The stop sign is a good example: The whole-sentence-in-a-word simplicity, the size and location of the sign, and the color of the signage – together, that tells exactly what is expected from the user.  Similarly, input given to the user from any software application ought to be consistent in content, shape, and presentation, and should have no ambiguity about its importance.  Otherwise, the user will either get confused and stop, or worse, will ignore the input – in either case, the software has failed to do what it was supposed to, and Murphy wins again.

2 Responses to “STOP signs don’t need exclamation points”

  1. Meg Bear said

    welcome to TalentedApps Keshav, we are thrilled to have you adding to the discussion. As you know, I couldn’t agree more, that usability is always better when we keep it simple. Excellent example.

  2. Amy Wilson said

    Great example, Keshav. I am always amazed that I can drive in foreign countries! Though I have to admit all the signage in the world doesn’t keep me, as a pedestrian, from looking left first when crossing the street in London … and invariably getting honked at, sworn at, and nearly hit by the vehicle approaching from the right. 🙂

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