Thoughts, musings, and adventures of a user experience designer and front-end developer

In Case of Emergency…

One goal of user experience design is to ensure that when interacting with a product, users understand how to use the product quickly, with little or no training. This applies to a myriad of things we encounter in our daily lives – a car’s dashboard, a thermostat, even a toaster oven. It’s especially true when the product is (literally) life-saving.

I noticed a great example of this recently on the D.C. Metro. This goal of this poster is to inform passengers of what to do in an emergency. However, it seems a little confusing when just glancing at it, and would likely be more so if someone was confused or otherwise impaired during an actual emergency.

The Problems:

  • Wordy content. The user is forced to focus on each sentence to figure out what to do. Not only might this be hard for many people to do in a critical situation, it also may be impossible for people who are not proficient English readers (something very important to consider in a city that has significant international tourism). Even as someone proficient in the English language, it took me a few minutes to understand the sentences and how they applied in an emergency. I could see myself having difficulty understanding this in an actual emergency.
  • Ambiguous terminology. For example, what is meant by “imminent danger?” Would users potentially define this as something different than what WMATA intends?  Is someone posing a threat to me on a train “imminent danger?” Or do they only refer to mechanical failures or crashes?
  • Visual cues don’t align with instructions. The actual devices that can be used in an emergency situation (intercom to contact train operator and emergency door lever) are in the opposite order in which they are presented on the poster. This makes it harder to connect the actual device to the relevant instructions.

User testing is often only thought of in the context of an application or product. But even when it’s just content, user testing is important. This is especially true for something on which lives may literally depend. It was a good reminder to me to always keep in mind the context in which users will interact with a design in its real-world setting.

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