Usability and Familiar Symbols

By Mike Maddaloni on Friday, August 01, 2008 at 04:00 AM with 8 comments

photo of entrance to Babies R Us in ChicagoA large part of usability is the ease for how anything – from a Web site to a coffee maker and beyond – can be, well, used. Familiarity can have a significant impact on usability. If someone used something elsewhere that looks familiar in something else, they may be able to use this new item here.

I have experienced this first hand when traveling abroad. A couple of years ago my lovely wife and I visited Denmark, and this was the first time I did a fair amount of driving outside of the US. Where I did not speak the language, I was able to get around on the roads as the international driving signs and symbols were familiar to me. Even if the Danish words were not familiar, the overall symbol’s shape and color were, and as a result I knew what to do, and did not get into an accident.

This came to mind recently on a trip to the Babies R Us store in Chicago. On the front entrance is a sign that reads “Entrance Only” however the words are inside of the international symbol for “do not enter” as shown in the accompanying photo The first time I went to the store, I paused for a moment as I got a mixed signal – the sign reads enter, but the symbol says not to. As many stores employ the green enter and red do not enter signs, my reaction was not unusual. Realizing this was the only way in, I proceeded to enter. Looking back as I did, I was not the only person to proceed with caution upon approaching this door.

Where I don’t design retail stores, I design Web sites. The adherence to consistency and commonly accepted standards is vital to the success of a Web site. If a Web visitor doesn’t know they should click on something, they won’t. Hopefully this is not referring to a “buy” button on a Web page. The above-mentioned sign may not have turned someone completely away from shopping at Babies R Us, but that was probably due more to the fact they drove to the store and eventually figured they could enter. With a Web site, you may not have that luxury of someone being that persistent, and they will seek a Web site that is more familiar to them.


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