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.