Friday, 11 November 2011

Signs of distress - why is so much signage so utterly confusing?

My wife and I visited a local branch of HSBC earlier today. This isn’t our bank, and we’d never been in before. It was a strange experience, what with there not being a line of 12-year old cashiers fiddling about with documents behind plate glass while a queue of customers stretches twice round the block.

In fact, there was only one other customer, who was talking to a member of staff in what is undoubtedly known as a “pod”. The rest of the place seemed to consist of endless, semi-circular banks (geddit?) of interactive machines for this and that. Nobody used any of them during the 10 minutes we were there.

We wandered around, confused, trying to find anyone whose attention we might attract, until the sole visible staff member motioned us to a pair of seats where we were evidently supposed to wait. Another staff member eventually appeared and dealt with us. My wife had go back a few hours later and had the same problem figuring out how to make contact with a human being (or even a bank clerk). Several other customers wandered in during her time there, looked dazedly around, and promptly exited.

I expect whichever pretentious, self-satisfied nincompoop was responsible for this ludicrous piece of modern “customer-centric” design is revered by their peers,  has won several architectural awards, and, for all I know, been awarded a knighthood. They probably don't have to do anything as grubby as visit a bank.

When I spent a few years involved in launching interactive services, even I could figure out that there were two basic design rules that had to be followed. First, the user must know what they’re supposed to do next. Second, whenever the user does anything, there must be feedback to tell them that they’ve done the right or wrong thing  - and, in either case, a clear instruction as to what to do next. (I banged on about this in an earlier post.

Surely it’s no different with physical spaces like shops, banks, police stations, motorways and airports? And yet how many times do we find ourselves entering one of these places and not finding a single hint as to what we’re supposed to do right then – let alone how we’re supposed to achieve our ultimate goal?

This sort of confusion usually comes down to signage. Usually, there's there’s too much. Driving in most British cities gives us an idea of what it must be like to be autistic – you’re constantly bombarded with a mass of information and no time to sift through it for the only item that’s relevant to you at that moment. Direction signs are particularly unhelpful: when you’re actually looking for the M5, you’re usually being offered a choice between places with names like Little Netterton-on-the-Wold or Flum - or yoiu follow a series of signs for the M5 for a mile or two, which promptly vanish as soon as you have to make a definite choice.

Get signage right, and the rest follows. To this day I remember  driving up a single-lane slip road to join a Swedish motorway, family on board, and realising I had absolutely no idea if I was about to meet an enormous Scania truck thundering towards me: the signage between the busy international port we’d just sailed into and the main road in either direction was that bad. I remember myself and some colleagues boarding a plane at Nice Airport with seconds to spare because we’d been sitting in the wrong place for nearly an hour (airport signage is spectacularly horrendous). Portuguese conference centres, Spanish hotels, bus and train stations anywhere – I’ve found myself running around all of them in a massive, sweaty panic at one time or another.

If you’re feeling snootily superior reading this, I defy you to find your car again should you be unlucky enough to pay a visit to the enormous Westfield shopping complex in Shepherd’s Bush: in fact, I’d be impressed if you were able to find the bloody shop you wanted, thanks to an almost complete absence of signs – you have to rely on a tiny number of interactive information “stations”, which, if we’re ever threatened with invasion again  should be stationed at strategic points around the country in order to bamboozle the enemy.

Test your signs on the sort of people who’ll wind up using them, you silly sods! 

But, first, contact Apple and ask for advice. Those chaps know how to to look at the world through our eyes.

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