Design and Innovation Daily

The traffic guru; UIs that lie

Posted in architecture, interaction design, psychology, theory by Dan on February 4, 2010

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman had surprising insights into the effects of warning signs, traffic lights, and other elements of traffic safety infrastructure. His most famous idea, which hasn’t made it into American traffic engineering but has been influential in Europe, was that removing most of that infrastructure could make streets safer. By redesigning aspects of a certain town to make it seem more “villagelike,” he was able to change drivers’ perception of the environment and encourage them to drive more slowly and carefully without the influence of signs and other interventions. This article by Tom Vanderbilt explains more about Monderman’s approach and how the traffic insfrastructure affects individuals’ behavior in unexpected ways: “The Traffic Guru.”

This is a remarkable phenomenon. It shows that the framework for the usage of the system, which is, in this case, a traffic system, informs the way people use the system—but not through constraints, not through direct communication, and not through affordances. Users’ perception of the environment changes how they think they ought to drive, even though the surrounding town might have nothing to do with their intention to travel to a destination.

David Lindes writes about a similar pattern in a completely different environment. In the process of redesigning an application for a certain business process, he set out to learn about the clients’ workflow and found out that it was excessively complicated. This reflected a problem with the client’s old application. It wasn’t just that the old program was a bad match for the process, but that the program’s complicated workflow had actually changed the way the client understood the process. Even though the original business process was not to be driven by software, “user interfaces are one of the principal sources from which a person learns about his or her work.” The implication for our own design process is huge. “UIs that lie & the users who believe them.”

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