Category Archives: signs

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


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.

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 Videos copyright Jürgen Henn –

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.