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Potpourri–Lazy Summer Edition

It’s summer and we (along with some of you) are taking a break.  But here’s a list of interesting usability/HF-related things that have crossed my path:

  • After much complaining, Ford is bringing back physical knobs in their MyTouch in-car controls.  Anne and I worked on some research (PDF) in our past lives as graduate students that directly compared touch-only interfaces to knob-based interfaces so it’s nice to see it is still a major issue; if only Ford read our 9 year old paper :)
  • Trucks driving under very low bridges is such a large problem in Australia that they are deploying a really novel and clever warning system.  A waterfall that projects a sign that’s hard to miss!
  • tags_finderApple will introduce their next version of OSX in the fall. One of the features i’m most excited about is system-level tag support.  Tags allow users to organize their files regardless of location or type.  I’m particularly interested in personal, single-user-generated tagging (compared to collaborative tagging like that used in flickr) as it appears to benefit older adults information organization and retrieval (PDF).  This pleases me.

No one wants to touch the gas pump

pump

The above is from a gas pump in a large metro area. Can you guess the most common zip code number? How about what object people use to to press the keys?
But you’re probably missing my favorite part – look in the lower right. Do you see the black electrical tape? Under that tape is the START button for the gasoline. The instructions on the screen say to “press the start button to begin fueling.” As the most commonly pressed button it was the first to be destroyed, and the station attendant’s tape solution earned it a humor tag in this post. I’m also willing to bet that hiding the START button is why the “No/Cancel” button has been furiously destroyed as well.

I’ve come across some of these where the soft keypads were entirely destroyed by keys for the common zip code numbers. Once I had to leave to find another gas station, since it wouldn’t accept my card without a zip code entered and the buttons no longer worked.

Photo credit Maribeth Gandy Coleman

The Automobile Fuel Gauge – a ‘failed’ pictogram

Nice post over on Humans in Design on the semi-universal icon that tells you what side of the car to fill gasoline. It’s a little triangle that can go on either side of the icon, and the gas tank opens on that side of the car.

The post is called Lessons from a Failed Pictogram, and it covers the more common icon used on dashboards that is simply a picture of an old-timey gas pump with no triangle. This icon is simply an indicator that the gauge is for fuel – it doesn’t help the user know how to drive up to the pump.

The post addresses the myths that grew up about the fuel pump icon – that the pump handle indicated obtusely that the tank was on the opposing side. Of course, this would be a terrible indicator, but the take home message was that if users come up with imaginary meanings for a pictogram, designers should take notice. The users are begging for that message. From the post:

If a myth exists it’s often a search for meaning that can be used to identify a design problem, which is the first step to a solution.

Indeed, most of the pictures I found in an image search were just the pump with no indicator about the fuel tank. The one below stood out since it uses TWO icons.

On a personal note, I was almost 30 before anyone told me about the fuel indicator arrow.

 

Photo credit gmanviz @ Flickr

Photo credit Strupy @ Flickr

Treemapping Your Way to Healthier Food Choices

Renee Walker, MFA in Design, came up with an innovative use of treemaps to provide nutrition information – winning the Rethink the Food Label contest.

Can you imagine the horror of food companies once they realize how much of their treemap has to say SUGAR? This visualization is certainly easier than the rule of thumb I was taught: “If sugar is one of the first three ingredients, it’s a lot of sugar.” Just look at how easy it is to compare peanut butters in the above image.

You can go here to see all of the finalists in the label design competition.

Only tangentially related, the interactive stock market map is my favorite previous use of treemaps.


Image owned by Renee Walker.

Color Coded Elevator Buttons – Wow!

Human Factors.. it’s just common sense, right? Oh dear.

Found on Robyn’s Posterous.

More usability in the news: CAPS LOCK OFF ON STREET SIGNS

It is unfortunate I only found the NY Post as a source for this, but it is still an interesting moment of research-to-practice. From the article:

The Capital of the World is going lower-case.

Federal copy editors are demanding the city change its 250,900 street signs — such as these for Perry Avenue in The Bronx — from the all-caps style used for more than a century to ones that capitalize only the first letters.

Changing BROADWAY to Broadway will save lives, the Federal Highway Administration contends in its updated Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, citing improved readability.

Studies have shown that it is harder to read all-caps signs, and those extra milliseconds spent staring away from the road have been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents, particularly among older drivers, federal documents say.

The new regulations also require a change in font from the standard highway typeface to Clearview, which was specially developed for this purpose.

I think it is counterintuitive how much sentence-case helps with reading. For example, my mother asked me last year to help her type and print a speech she was giving. She wanted it in all caps so she could “read it more easily” while standing up. I think there is a perception of caps as larger and therefore more readable and this will have to be overcome for initiatives like this one to succeed. (I did not end up convincing my mother, even after making a nice large font, and so I printed it just how she wanted it… in all, unreadable, caps.)

Photo credit ➨ Redvers

11 feet 8 inches

A train trestle in Durham, NC has a clearance of 11’8″.

The typical height of a large rental truck ranges from 11’6″ (don’t bounce!) to 13’6″.

How often do you think about clearance when driving? Do you think you could adjust to thinking about it 100% of the time in your rental truck?

I’ve seen parking garages that have a hanging bar well before the low ceiling to notify drivers that they are not going to make it. The bar, on chains, will bang the front of the truck but not peel the top off as the bridge does. The trucks in this video are going to quickly, this warning would have to come well before they crossed the intersection. This solution probably has problems too. I’m sure there would be drivers who were planning to turn before the bridge that get mad that a bar hit their truck. Also, getting someone to pay for and maintain the bar might be difficult as the trestle owners want to blame the drivers (and so do other drivers, if you read the comments on the video.)

More video and information is availible at 11foot8.com. Videos copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com.

Code Chartreuse – “Too many codes”

Enjoy memorizing this hospital sign!

How about just announcing the issue rather than matching it first with a color? For example: “Attention, tornado!” seems like it would be effective.

Elopement, by the way, means a patient with Alzheimer’s needs to be located. That makes “purple” a code within a code (and makes me want to watch Inception again). This is also one of the few I could understand wanting to disguise with a color.

“Shooter” is another candidate for obfuscation, although I imagine the shooter would quickly figure out that any announcements were about them, while hospital denizens look around and say “Huh, we’ve never heard code silver before. Sounds like something to do with Alzheimer’s.”

Photo credit Jason Boyles.

Unusable Signs – Biking

I took a snap of this sign while on a bike ride yesterday. It appears to be a map of the bike trail. But there are a few problems…

  1. The sign clearly points to the right. The paved bike path continues straight ahead (and turns left in about 200 feet).
  2. That little green triangle in the upper left says “North.” Such a shame that the arrow is pointing to the south, so you have to completely reverse the map in your mind to use it.
  3. Of all the street names listed on the map, none are for streets within viewing distance. I can see 4 street signs from the sign, and none of them are represented ON the sign.

In short, I have no idea what this map is trying to show me, and even if I did, it’s unlikely I’d be able to mentally rotate it with no mistakes.

This is the second municipal sign I’ve seen where the direction you are looking when you read the sign is 180 degrees opposite of what the map displays.

    Electric Scooters and their Warnings: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger

    Electric shopping carts are common in large grocery stores. Essential for users with mobility impairments, they are also helpful for pregnant women, elderly shoppers, and other who have trouble walking long distances.

    A few months ago, my grandfather overturned such a cart in a parking lot and broke his hip. Interested in what might have caused the accident, I examined a similar cart at my local store.

    in-storeWhile the cart appeared stable, red-and-white signs affixed to the inside and outside of the basket read, in large letters, “IN-STORE USE ONLY.” Two others warned, “INTENDED FOR USE INDOORS ON LEVEL SURFACES ONLY!” and “DO NOT TAKE THIS CART OUTSIDE THE STORE.” An instruction manual I found online had similar statements in several places.

    instructionsHere is the problem: A customer who uses the cart while shopping will surely want to use it when taking groceries to the car. My grandfather lived independently and drove himself to the store, but rheumatoid arthritis made walking difficult. Using an electric cart made it possible for him to do his own shopping. While he most likely saw the warning, he may have dismissed it as a statement written to merely to discourage lawsuits. (This is speculation–he could not converse following the accident and died a few weeks later–but it is consistent with his personality.)

    Clearly the manufacturer had anticipated that people would use the carts outside and thought this behavior might be hazardous.  But did the store share this concern? Since the cashier loaded the bags into his cart following the purchase, it appears that, despite the warning, the store expected him to drive the cart to the parking lot.

    warning

    The signs and repeated warning statements in the manual suggest a mismatch between the design of the product and the expected behavior of users. So how should the problem be addressed?

    • If the carts are truly not stable outdoors, stores should not allow them to be driven into the parking lot. Instead, employees should carry out groceries for all customers who use a motorized cart.
    • Offering the service is not enough; some customers, not wanting to be a bother, will refuse assistance if asked. Instead, when the cashier begins checking out a customer with an electric cart, she should immediately summon a worker to load the groceries into a push cart and take the groceries to the customer’s vehicle.
    • Manufacturers should assume that customers will take electric carts outdoors and design them accordingly. Motorized scooters intended for outdoor use are widely available.
    • If they have not already done so, shopping cart manufacturers should implement similar stability features.  As human factors engineers have said for years, a warning is no substitute for good design.
    • Good warnings tend to have a “why” that informs the user about the hazard when that hazard is not immediately obvious. If you though the reason to keep the cart indoors was because you might be hit by a car, your decision to take the cart outdoors could be different than if you knew the cart were unstable.

    Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the School of Industrial Engineering, University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include usability, product design, industrial ergonomics and design for special populations.

    Watch out for Un-Equalsteppings!

    Photo by Joe C

    Photo by Joe C.

    Reader Joe C. sent in this unusual warning on a door.

    It was on the entry door to one of the screens at a local cinema. The un-equalsteppings just turned out to be a slope! Not sure why they couldn’t of just told me it was a slope.

    It’s Right There, Right on your Left

    Found this sign at a rock climbing gym, then watched three groups of people do the opposite of what the sign requests, despite reading it.

    vesign

    Parking garage ticket machine warning

    I’m at the airport waiting to board a flight.  Here is a funny warning message that greeted me on the parking garage ticket-dispensing machine:


    Vigilante Warnings

    I snapped this picture near NCSU today. Looks like the garbage workers or apartment dwellers decided to take matters into their own hands.

    You are what you eat (And I’m about a B-)

    Like many people, I use heuristics when choosing between food products. My algorithm goes something like this:

    1. What’s the lowest unit price? 25 cents per ounce vs. 40 cents per ounce?
    2. Pick up the lowest
    3. Look at the saturated fat RDI
    4. If reasonable, look at ingredients
    5. Is list too long to read in 3 seconds?
    6. If yes, pick up next cheapest item for comparison.
    7. If no, look for “partially hydrogonated” or “high fructose corn syrup”
    8. If either found, pick up next cheapest item for comparison
    9. If neither found, purchase.

    Wouldn’t it be great if someone did steps 3-9 for me? Or if they considered factors I’m too lazy or uneducated enough to balance and comprehend? Well, the ONQI has stepped up to the challenge. The ONQI, or Overall Nutritional Quality Index, is coming to products near you as a single scale for all foods. As the site states, it finally allows the comparison of apples to oranges (oranges win, by the way.)
    One of the things I’m most impressed with is the ONQI’s use of the entire scale. Unlike choosing wine by points (where nearly every advertised bottle is above 88 points on a 100 scale), on the ONQI soda gets a 1 while oranges get 100. Now we know that although pretzels aren’t bad for you… they certainly aren’t good for you with a rating of eleven. Eleven is a lot closer to Coca-cola than it is to oranges.

    The second thing I’m impressed with is their attempt at transparency. Their conference presentations are available online. However, due to patent, the actual algorithm used is not available. We are asked to trust that experts have tested it and found it reliable. Hopefully this will change as soon as the patent expires and it may be examined by numerous independent investigators.

    One thing it does not do (that the food pyramid has been trying to do for 50 years) is recommend a balanced diet. Oranges and strawberries may score 100s, but a pure diet of those won’t do much but prevent rickets. However, I like their concept of attacking the nutrition problem at a food-by-food level. If I have my meal basically planned, I can use the scale to decide between individual options.

    Last, I enjoyed this bit from their website:

    What about products that don’t score well? Aren’t you at risk of alienating some brands? The ONQI was developed based on sound science, independent of any food company or commodity organization bias. Since the ONQI can be applied to all foods, beverages, recipes and meals, it levels the playing field, and provides consumers with a universal tool to measure any food they wish to purchase. It can also provide a benchmark for product development and reformulation.

    The failed food pyramid is a good example of how difficult it is to create a nationwide understanding of a complex topic. The ONQI does the work for the consumer; work we’re clearly not interested in doing ourselves. I’m going to be watching closely to see how the ONQI pans out in studies of purchasing behavior changes.

    Processing negatives

    Following signs to the Raleigh SPCA, we took a wrong turn.

    From the looks of things, we were not the first to do so.

    notthespca.jpg

    alsonot.jpg

    Of course, you only see these signs once you are on the wrong property. They might have avoided all troubles by putting a sign along the way that pointed to the SPCA.

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