I pulled into the parking lot and I’m not ashamed to admit it…I was stumped.
I wasn’t exactly sure where to go or how to get there. This despite the fact that I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent human being (I can’t really prove this, so I’ll just assert it for now), that I’ve been a licensed driver in the state of Pennsylvania for almost 20 years AND a practicing civil engineer for 15 of those years.
OK…so I knew the basics: that I wanted to park my car and that the parking spaces were tantalizingly close – but I was confronted by a series of one way drives, “do not enter” and other various signs, and raised landscaping islands that knew exactly where I wanted to go and had decided to place themselves in that precise location to prevent me from doing so.
Usability for Dummies
There’s a terrific book on web design that would have helped the designer of this parking lot out. It’s called “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. The author is a “usability consultant” who gets paid to tell other people how confusing their websites are and how to make them better. His number one rule for usability? Don’t make me think. “When I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory. I should be able to “get it”…without expending any effort thinking about it.” The same holds true for parking lots. I should be able to “get it” without thinking. Navigating through a website has a lot in common with navigating through a parking lot.
Standard for a reason
Unfortunately sometimes civil engineers allow considerations for the usability of a particular site fall toward the bottom of the priority list – or at least they’re considered AFTER all of the other priorities are taken care of. Sometimes we get caught up in making sure something looks nice on paper and forget about what it will feel like in the real world. Sometimes we’re at the end of our engineering budget and “usability” seems like a luxury that we don’t have time for. Sometimes we just get too clever for our own good and forget about those standard conventions that have become standard for a reason. Of course, I’ve never done that (and I promise I’ll NEVER do it again.)
Put yourself in your shoes
The solution is simple, but definitely not easy. When you look at a design from your engineer, picture yourself driving, walking or riding a bike into your site and just imagine how you’d get from here to there. Take the plans out to the site and walk around visualizing the finished product in mind. Get someone else to take a look at the design with a fresh set of eyes. Ask “why?” That sure sounds simple enough, but evaluating a design for usability takes some thought…and it takes time. But for those users that will have to live with our designs for the next 25-100 years, it’s worth it.