Don’t Tell Me What To Do

Signs signs, everywhere there’s signs,
blockin’ out the scenery, breaking’ my mind

-The Who

Sometimes it takes a trip to the unexpected to find out the meaning of instruction-overload. We were struck, then, on a recent stop the Grand Central restroom (we’ve all been there), which to our surprise was filled with what looked like the musings of an angry librarian armed with a laser printer and an odd affection for fonts. There were signs on every surface, in every stall, and IN ALL CAPS that said “FLUSH ME” “WIPE ME” “NO CLOTHES WASHING” “LIMIT YOUR TIME AT THE SINK TO 5 MINUTES”. It was, as they say, ridiculous, and not to mention counterproductive.

Being usability geeks, that experience got us thinking about the signage on the sites we build week in and week out. How do you provide the right cues and messages to guide both the first-time user as well as the daily visitor? To start, users get overwhelmed when presented with too much information because it’s harder for them to decipher what is really important. Overwhelmed users no longer dictate their own experience, so they quickly tune out and click somewhere else. Successful websites draw the user in by giving them just the right amount of information to keep them interested and engaged.

But how does one determine what “the right amount of information” actually is? You have to first identify the goal of your site. This seems straightforward enough, but if your users can’t access that goal themselves, then what are you providing other than a flashy void? As well as you know your business from the inside, sometimes it takes an outside expert to identify the barriers you’ve created in the name of guidance. In the good old days, the store manager could simply browse the aisles himself and chat with the customers about what they like or dislike about the layout, lighting, goods and service. The anonymous audience of the Internet must be carefully engaged lest they dart in and off if your site doesn’t strike a chord in the first milliseconds of loading. Need more proof? Just visit Grand Central station, head northeast of track 42 and head straight into the ladies room on the left. Just remember to take LESS THAN 5 MINUTES WASHING YOUR HANDS!