Using a ‘Traffic Cop’ to Quick-fix Design Problems

Back in October, IxDA PHX hosted a ‘Design Thinking Workshop’ as part of Phoenix Design Week 2014. I’m one of the local leaders who helped organize the event. We had over 100 people signed up, which was great. But when the big day finally came, we ran into a big problem: Nobody could find the place!

The meeting was at a relatively new Tech Collaboration Center in Tempe, right on Mill Avenue. Google maps could lead you to the address. But it was a three story building that wrapped around a corner and connected to other buildings on either side. There was no obvious entryway. Instead, what you saw was a Bank, a smoothie shop, a clothes store, and a bunch of other college-town businesses. The Tech Center was up above on the second story, and the door to the Tech Center was a nondescript metal door set back from the road that also served as an entryway to 3rd story apartments.

I myself wandered back and forth on the street several times before running into someone I knew who helped lead me inside. Thank goodness for her! And when I got in, I heard a similar story from others on the set-up team:

“Boy is this place hard to find!”

“I must have walked by the door five times before I figured it out.”

“I had to call someone who works here for help.”

I knew right away that our 100 or so guests would face the same problem. Thankfully I also knew a simple solution – one that I’d used before as a UX designer. It was time to play Traffic Cop!

Tony the Traffic Cop, IxDA Phoenix Design Thinking Workshop 2014, Tempe, AZ

I grabbed an IxDA PHX sign and hoofed it downstairs to the street to catch people as they walked by. Some of our guests saw me holding the sign and gravitated right over. Others I’d see wandering around looking confused and ask them if they were looking for the Design Thinking Workshop? Yes? Right this way!

It wasn’t the ideal situation, but being a Traffic Cop for 45 minutes solved the problem and got people into our event. And that’s all that mattered.

So how does this relate to the design world?

I once faced a similar situation with a CRM solution I was working on. The Engineering group had rushed a SaaS version of their installable CRM software into Beta in time for a big Partner event. I remember hearing about the project early on. There was “no time for design”, they said. We had to let the engineers crank on this one in order to meet the tight deadline.

Fine, I said. UX is busy with our own projects right now. But tell you what… How about we set up a user testing lab at the conference (we were going anyways) and get some of the Partners to test drive the Beta solution first hand?

Everyone liked that idea. Our Partners loved getting their hands on new products and giving their input. So we did it. And guess what happened? These seasoned veterans who knew our installable solution through-and-through couldn’t complete the most basic task of entering a new contact into the system. Nine out of nine people that we tested on the first day got stuck.

How could that be?

It turns out the engineers had to break up the workflow people were used to in the installable solution when they re-built it online. The SaaS solution had the users start the task in the same place they were used to, but to finish the task they had to jump over to another screen buried under a different menu. And nobody could figure that out.

We (UX) talked to the engineers and the Product Manager the first night after the testing and told them about the results. It was a bad situation. There was no time to redesign the whole workflow before release, but we couldn’t leave it how it was. Nobody could use it!

And that’s when it dawned on me. Let’s put in a Traffic Cop. We’ll insert a link right at the end of the first set of tasks that jumps the user to the other page where they can finish up. It’s not the most elegant design in the world, but it should do the trick. We knew from the testing that people were stopping right at a certain place in the UI and looking for what to do next. With a link to guide them, they’d be all set.

We had the developers add the link that night. And we tested seven more users the next day. Bingo. Seven out of seven completed the task!


In the real world, when the power goes out and the traffic lights stop working; or when there’s an accident or big event and traffic needs to be re-routed, they call in a Traffic Cop to help direct people to where they need to be.

In the design world, you may face a similar situation. It’s not an ideal situation, but you’ll have to deal with it somehow. If it happens to you, remember the Traffic Cop solution and see if that can help get you through.



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