Signposting our ruin

Last night in a busy Tesco I saw 3 self-service machines vacant while a queue circled around the fruit and veg section? Why? The customers were waiting an instruction. An instruction which didn’t come as the attendant on duty was helping a very flustered customer with a technical problem on another machine.

As I’ve watched the increase of self-service machines take over the number of peopled cash registers, so too the reliance of customers on the attendants. They were originally stationed to help with technical problems. But the waiting queue now wait for the attendant’s command to go and which self service machine to go to.

On another occasion while standing second in line, I alerted the person in front that a machine had become free. The response was, ‘the attendant will tell me if its okay.’

It wouldn’t seem that difficult a concept. One customer vacates the machine, another engages it. Like waiting for a pump at a petrol station. Do we wait for an attendant to tell us where to go? No, no one stands at the pumps to hold our hand and lead us through. We line up sensibly, the car in front leaves and we move up.

This got me around to think about signposting – triggers we all use in interface design for messaging or instruction to the user. But do we ourselves do too much hand holding and impede the user from thinking for themselves?

Recently I have been working on a scientific content enrichment project. The target user is chemists who are very familiar with the content and its subleties. Yet I work with stakeholders who are not, and who question screen designs that don’t give enough instruction or context.

What’s the balance? Clearly AB testing is the solution here and has proven that the less amount of noise the better, the content speaks for itself. As a previous head of UX used to drill into me, the efficacy of design should eliminate any need for explanation.

But is there too much noise out there already and does the Tesco observation show we are a society that expect to be told what to do?

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