Is a sign just a sign?

Posted by: | Posted on: November 3, 2017

An incident in a car park this week got me thinking about the nature of signs and the importance of placing them at the right point in the journey.  I’m not talking about labeling here, the signs made perfect sense; the problem here was timing.

Signposts are there to ultimately get us to our destinations quickly, safely and with the least amount of wrong turns or dead ends.  Sometimes however signposts send us to the wrong destination and, in this case, literally up against a brick wall.  After parking in the underground car park, I got out of the car and took several confident steps towards the large, prominent sign saying “lifts”.  Then I stopped.  As I had got closer another sign became visible that directed people to two different lifts, the public lifts and the club lifts.  I wanted the public lifts so I followed the arrows, and that’s when I hit the brick wall.  Back I went to the first sign to check the direction.  No, I was definitely following the signs…to a dead end.  Looking up the car ramp I could see the lifts within tantalizing reach but there were large signs prohibiting pedestrians on the ramp.  In the other direction, I could see stairs, but they were going down and I needed to go up.  So there I was, seemingly literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

This experience got me thinking about the importance not just of proper sign labeling, but of placement and destination.  At what point in the site journey do we place the sign to the next step we want users to take?  When do we give them signs to other destinations?   Through testing and working with users, I have learned to place signs (such as registration calls-to-action or related information details) at the point in the journey where users are most receptive to them.  Sometimes this might be at the start, but sometimes it’s after they’ve done a little bit of exploring on their own and are ready to look for, or be prompted with, that next step.  Take the example of someone arriving at a product site and being forced to register before they can browse items or add them to their basket (yes, this still happens).  Forcing people to register before they’ve decided its worth their while will only drive users to other sites where shopping is easier.  Sites should also allow users to choose whether to register (because there’s an advantage in doing so, like saving time on repeat purchases) or to simply make the transaction (including bill payment) without registering.

Likewise, hitting people with information about hotels when they’ve arrived at the flight search page is a little premature but showing them that information after they’ve booked a flight is helpful because they’re now ready to take the next step in their travel arrangement process.

So, did I get out of the car park?  Yes, I took my chances with the vehicles and walked up the cars-only ramp to the lifts.  The door into the lift foyer had no affordance, but that’s a whole other issue, nor did it tell me what floor I was on (a hazard for the return journey!) but I did manage to eventually get myself onto the street above.

Moral of the story?  Don’t send your users into brick walls.  If the directional sign to the lifts had been placed after I had proceeded down a flight of stairs, I would have found them easily instead of being deterred too soon and sent literally up against a brick wall.  So think about when and where to give directions.  When will your users be receptive to further information or calls-to-action?  When is the right time to show them secondary directions?  What would be useful to know now and to where would they like to go?    Remember, it’s a lot easier to leave your site than to exit a car park, so make sure you use signs well.

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