User-centred design and traffic cones

To most, I’m a Web Designer. Within the industry, my job title is the more niche “User Experience Designer”. That means it’s my job not only to design websites, but to ensure the experience of using them is a pleasant and easy one.

Part of my role includes labelling: choosing which words get used for which tasks to make a message easier to understand. For instance, I’d never put a “submit” button at the end of a contact form (its a very techy and unfriendly word), my button would say something more personable and hopefully easier for everyone to understand, like “send it now”. (my friend Stuart has pointed out to me that the comments form on this very blog has a ‘submit’ button. my excuse? I’ve used a pre-made template for this website, as I’m such a web design perfectionist that my own design for the site is in its fifth iteration and I’m so far not happy enough with it to launch it!!)

This is a practice which should be applied in many offline situations too, and it was whilst driving to Lewes today that I noticed what appalling labelling we have on UK road works signs.

First, I spotted “Adverse camber” and wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I knew the camber is the shape of the road, usually curving up to the middle. Since the traffic was being channelled across to the ‘wrong’ side of the road, I assumed the camber would become opposite to normal… but I wasn’t sure that’s what the sign meant. My passenger, an English Language graduate, expected ‘adverse’ to mean difficult (from a slightly inaccurate definition of ‘adversity’). In actual fact, there was very little change in the road surface so the sign wasn’t even needed. But if it had been, perhaps a better wording would be “road tips to right”.

Secondly, I saw some sort of crane bearing the warning “Caution: operatives in road”. Why “operatives”? Why not the more common (and less confusing) “operators”, or (the much less confusing) “men”. Presumably, in today’s world of political correctness they can’t say “men”. But in a potentially dangerous situation where the safety of your workers depends on a message being conveyed to drivers quickly and clearly, “men in road” could be life-savingly faster to understand than “operatives in road”.

For more on this topic, read “Airport User Experience”, a blog post by Andy Budd.

One thought on “User-centred design and traffic cones

  1. Hi Paul,
    Great to see you the other day (although it would have been nicer had actually won something in the poker game!). Don’t have your email address – hence using your website.
    Interested to read that you (like me) get irritated by signs like “Operatives in road” or the less used “Operatives operating in operational arena” – I presume the mental process would go as follows – “Operatives? What do they mean by Operative? Is that meant to mean operator? Not like a telefonist, but something similar, right? Surely they have to be opertaing something? -CRASH- “Sorry, mate, didn’t see you in the street!”) Anyway, it put me in mind of Neurolinguist Programming and the importance of using the correct terminology to better communicate with your audience.
    The theory is pretty sound. If you’re talking to an audience of football fans it makes sense to use verbal (and actual) references they understand – “our goal is X” (rather than “our operational objective is X”), “let’s get the ball in the back of the net” (“let’s focus on meeting team objectives”), etc. Simply put, it takes more mental processing power to understand unfamilar terminology. (It reminds me of a time when a friend was asked to estimate how far away a building was – his response, “It’s about half the length of a polo pitch away”, was not fully comprehended by the person posing the question.)
    It gets more complicated when you consider favoured representative systems. People see/feel the world in different ways and tend towards visual, audio or kinetic language. It depends what sounds/looks/feels right for them. If you consider that approximately 70% or people favour visual language (“looks like a good idea to me”), 20% favour audio (“sounds good to me”) and 10% favour kinetic (“feels about right”) – then why is most management jargon in less-penetrable kinetic language (“let’s get our ducks in a row”, “let’s unpackage that idea”, “get a handle on”)? Language designed not to be understood? (Something about obfuscation in order to self-empower senior managers?)
    But I digress. In fact I digress all the time… there was this one time back in the 90s when… never mind.
    Hope the new card trick is coming along well!
    I guess I press the “submit” button to “send it now”?
    All the best

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