Traffic and websitesPosted February 2nd, 2011 by David Hamill
In this post I’m going to talk about road signs, traffic and their similarities with the user experience of websites.
Frontloading important information
There’s an advertising sign I often see when driving down the M74 in Scotland. I’ve noticed it dozens of times but I can’t tell you what company it’s promoting because I didn’t notice the company name. The copy on the advert starts something like this
Which company was awarded the best blah blah blah…
I pass the sign at about 70 miles per hour. I’m trying to concentrate on the road and look out for signs that are pertinent to my journey. So this company doesn’t have a lot of my spare attention to play around with. It needs to make its point quickly if it wants to make it at all.
Unfortunately the (as yet unknown) company behind this sign has chosen to brag about itself in the form of a question that I presume it then answers. I haven’t gotten as far as reading the entire question, never mind getting to the answer. What it should do is create a sign that says who they are, what award they won and when they won it. This way they’d communicate the same message more effectively.
Reading on the web is very similar. Your users aren’t looking for the text where you boast about yourself, they are looking for useful stuff. If you want them to know how good you are then tell them with facts and put those facts to the front of your text.
When you’re driving to an unfamiliar destination you can be very dependent on road signs. But you’re unlikely to read every word on every sign. Instead you’re looking out for the names of places that you’re expecting to see. When you see a place name that works for you, you’ll stop reading and won’t see the rest of the sign.
This is how people behave when they are skimming through pages for links. If they see a link with strong trigger words, they will often click it without reading anything else on the page.
People who make websites often don’t appreciate this behaviour. Instead they create pages with the impressions that users will look around the entire page and make a reasoned decision after considering all options. Very few people actually do this.
Upper-case words can be more difficult to read
When you drive on a UK motorway, the junction signage you see uses the Kinneir-Calvert system of road sign design. This system dates back to the late 50s when road signs were inconsistent and often difficult to use.
Before the system was introduced there were no standards for UK road signs to follow. So it was left to the person creating the sign to decide how it should look. Amongst other things, the sign makers often used all upper-casing when writing out place names. The place names on the road signs were sometimes difficult to read as a result.
In the Kinneir Calvert system, place names are written as they would appear in a sentence. Each word begins with an upper-case letter with the rest of the letters in lower-case. This makes signs with several place names easier to read through.
The same is true on website navigation menus. In general it’s easier to read navigation menus when all of the options are not written out in capital letters.
Be careful with metaphors
Don’t try to be clever when choosing the wording of navigation options and hyperlinks within your copy.
On one of the cycling routes I often do, there is a sign for a bistro. It’s not immediately obvious what it’s for. The most prominent words on the sign say “Fuel up here” with an arrow pointing up the road. By “fuel up” they presumably mean with coffee and cakes. I often wondered if anyone went up that road because their car was running low on fuel.
While some metaphors such as shopping baskets can aide understanding, making up your own will often cause confusion. Your links should make sense out of the context of any metaphors you’ve decided to create on your website.
Clarity comes with sacrifices
Every time you add something to a design, you reduce the visual clarity of everything else on it. By adding content to the site you’re making it easier for people to get lost on the site. Most websites could be better improved by removing content and features rather than adding more. This is something that many people agree with but find difficult to apply to their own website.
The video below gives a rather funny (because it’s so true) depiction of how Stop signs might look if corporations were in charge of commissioning them. This is why so many websites are full of useless junk.
Some journeys are more important
One of my favourite usability metaphors is that of Red routes (I mention them quite often). Like a road network your website has lots of possible journeys. Some of them are more important to your users and your organisation than others. Dr David Travis calls these journeys Red routes and argues that keeping these journeys clear of the clutter will improve the overall effectiveness of your website. Just as red routes that you can’t park on in UK cities allow traffic to flow more freely.
What about you?
Do you have anything you’d like to share about road signs that is also true of websites? Why not share them by commenting below.