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Information Design: how to confuse the newly arrived.
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 9]

Thanks to a recent trip I've been able to assess, through my own experience, the importance of an efficient information design and of the coherence of all the devices that make up customer service.

Let me explain the case: I'd just landed at an airport 1500 Km. away from home. I'm heading to take the direct bus downtown (Aerobus). Perfect: it's waiting for me, the doors opened. Oops!, a large poster in the entrance of the bus tells me that there's no ticket provider inside the bus. You have to buy them before entering the bus.

No problem. A teller machine is waiting for me at the side of the bus, with its tactile screen changing colours suggestively. I touch the screen softly several times. Nothing. I decide to dismiss my renowned politeness and begin to kindly beat the screen. Finally it shows me a menu in 4 possible languages. I select English.

Surprise!. The machine sells all type of tickets: city centre (valid for 60'), long-distance, "city pass" (!?), weekly and monthly passes and all the possible combinations of the previous. Where is the Aerobus one?.

The bus is still waiting, but I don't want to miss it while deciphering what kind of ticket I should get.

I choose "city centre ticket (valid for 60')". After some more struggling with the screen, another menu informs me that the ticket costs 1 Euro (so cheap!?). The machine issues my ticket after swallowing my money.

Somewhat relieved, I get on the bus, where the driver sells, to my surprise, another ticket for me from his own ticket dispenser. I show him, to his surprise, my ticket and go to take my seat beset with doubts.

When I get to the hotel I take a leaflet about the Aerobus with the timetable, a statement on the possibility of taking the ticket inside the bus and its cost, nearly 5 Euro!. The next day coming back to the airport (having got a ticket in the bus at its nominal price) I try to solve the mystery looking more calmly at the infamous machine.

The screen has approximately this appearance:

City centre area (valid for 60')  Downtown monthly pass
City pass Long-distance ticket
Direct line airport - railway station Long-distance weekly pass
Downtown weekly pass Long-distance monthly pass

The question begins to become clearer. I deduce that the teller machine is just one identical to the many others spread over the city. The menu that corresponds to the Aerobus (called "Direct line to the railway station") is the 3rd on the left. In a two column format this makes this menu item the fifth out of eight, reading from left to right. Moreover the magical word "Aerobus" doesn't appear anywhere. This explains the fact that, in my haste, I didn't even read it.

While waiting for the plane and writing this message, I think about this little incident and the Information Design errors made by the people in charge of the system become more apparent.

One: the bus, as the leaflet indicates, does sell tickets, but the poster at its entrance contradicts it. Incoherence is contrary to good design and generates confusion.

Two: the designer has not taken into account the specific user of this particular machine. Typically a disoriented newcomer to the city that only wants to reach downtown, not to buy a long-distance monthly pass.

Three: The order of the entries doesn't favour its identification (5th in reading order) and the identificative word Aerobus doesn't appear. This makes the user to consider that the most probable is the first one.

The result: a deficient and confusing service and a money loss (5 times the ticket value in my case).

Sometimes the basic principles of Information design aren't taken into account:

  • What the message you want to transmit is.
  • Who the audience is.
  • What purpose the system, object or service has.

We live in a world more and more dominated by Internet, where customisation is increasingly important. If automatic machines have to be perceived as what they should be, a service to the customer, the designers have to be very aware of the importance of the design of the information the machines supply and the characteristics of the customer they serve.

Some interesting links:

Links of this issue:

http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#InformationDesign  
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=llibre&lang=2#InfoArq  
http://www.interactionarchitect.com/knowledge/article19991111shd.htm  
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