11 January 2011

...parking ballet

Christmas, if nothing else, is two things; busy and over. It's the former which leads me on to my latest trip to user interface town, via the A27 and into Brighton City College car park. Or rather, nearly not.

I've parked in their Pay & Display car park many times before, and had interesting run-ins with the taciturn little pay box who was often too worthy to accept my pounds (its method for sizing misshapen coins was more accurate than a NASA micrometer, blithely rejecting at whim). So when I got to the barrier this Christmas, ready to park-and-shop, I was rather excited to be sidled up to a shiny, proud new entry machine ready to let me in.

There was a whole pile of cheaply printed ticker-tape plastered all over it, but like any user, I thought, 'I know how this works, DURH, thanks #sarcasm', and promptly started pumping in my coinage - only to be promptly rejected. One by one. Just like old times.

Of course, first impression was that it's broken. Second impression was it can't be. It's new. The stickers on it, however, held the clues. And by the state of their positioning, they really were more like clues than the intended instructions. It took a little de-constructing, but I got there in the end, made my entrance and parked up. I was surprised at how empty it was for Christmas - in contrast, the car park opposite had two queues for entry. But soon I understood why. I witnessed the next happy customer run the gauntlet with the new pay machine, their coins being rejected, and saw them give up, assuming it was broken. I went to tell them it was working, but they'd already driven off.

Dear reader, do you want to see why they drove away? Of course you do. Pretend you're in your Datsun Cherry, window wound down, Lady GaGa (ironic remix) playing on the stereo, coins in hand, and drive up to this...

If you didn't know where to look first or what to do next (apart from use instinct and start throwing coins in the slot) I'm hardly surprised. It's information overload. Many messages all jostling for your attention, with differing type treatments set at disparate point sizes. The machine is simply asking to be ignored. It's like the audience shouting at a contestant on The Generation Game, a cacophony of guidance drowned out by the collective hubub. It needs the game show host, one constant element of authority, to step in with a clear unequivocal message and help guide you on to the prize.

Messages need order for them to successfully convey the point they're making, and the more complex the message, the more room there is to fall over. Enter our friend information hierarchy.

You will have already met her. She puts large headings in newspapers, captions pictures, numbers pages, and helps you know what to read next. She also puts navigation at the top of a Amazon.com, and guides your eyes through a page of merchandise, the info about a product, and nudges you to an easily spotted 'Add to Cart' button. In fact, she's everywhere. When clear, she's helping us on our way up motorways, through airports, down shopping aisles, and on to parties. For example, the information hierarchy on a flyer for a party can be as simple as:

Gary's Awesome Party
6th June
Room7, Town Hall, Colchester

However, things can get trickier when Ms hierarchy isn't being totally clear. Lets go to a different party:

Fancy dress!
Marek's SURPRISE Pixel Party
MARIO BROS  s p e c i a l   g u e s t
7 til late, BRING BOOZE
8-10 Food served
RSVP to mark@email.com
T h e    K i n g ' s   A r m s ,   L o n d o n

Now we face some variables which need explaining and instantly uncertainty creeps in:

Does Marek know it's a surprise?
What's the fancy dress code?
7AM or PM?
What is late?
Will there be veggie food available?
Which King's Arms in London - is that actually the party location?
Is the 'mark' email address a spellcheck of Marek?

With homespun creativity thrown in - different point sizes, colours, fonts - it starts to read rather tricky, the recipient not knowing which details are most important or indeed relevant. A good hierarchy of information is our friend.

Back to the car park entry machine, and you can see how the instructions came to be so confused. I imagine the owner realising the machine wasn't signed properly out-of-the-box, so placed some of their own directions on it. Then came some on-the-fly results of user testing (car parkers), with follow-up stickers being placed to re-enforce what users (car parkers) were missing. One example of a skewed instruction is a duplicate sticker placed larger to try and compensate for the previously placed smaller version, creating an unnecessary layer of visual noise.

To be fair, there ARE some complex messages to explain in a very tricky space - the customer's eligibility for parking outside of college hours being the most confusing. But even so, whenever an instruction is being created, the designer must be able to remove themselves from the task, and look at it dry, see it from the user's perspective, and ask themselves 'Can I understand this?'.

I've created a version that I, as a driver, would like to use myself, putting all the information in a logical hierarchy which I think any driver can decipher quickly and easily. I've taken into account the tools the designer had to work with, using the same sized stickers, typeface, font point sizes and colours, and retouched the original photo with my version of how the entry machine instructions should, in my opinion, be marked up. Here's the result...

If this version was employed by the owners, I'd be willing to bet a year's free entry that they would have more happy parkers.

I used the car park again on Saturday and the machine's stickering was unchanged. Sad to say the confusion remains; I helped on person enter as I was leaving the car park on foot, and another as I was returning to my car.