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.



Sign her up for the team!

I went into the break room this morning to refill my coffee and encountered something that struck me as a really effective UX. Good design can happen anywhere, you know?

Have a look at the scene below:

Break room signage

In addition to all the ordinary coffee and tea accoutrements there is a little yellow sign. It probably stands out to you, as someone who has never been in this room. And to me – someone who is in this room all the time – it was 100% noticeable the minute I walked in.

Now have a closer look at what the sign says. (The names and email address have purposely been obscured to protect identities.)

Break room signage text.

Message received, Chrissy. Brilliant!

Now why did I find this sign so delightful? Let’s break down the UX:

1. Chrissy obviously knows her audience. She picked a high traffic area that everyone in the company is bound to traverse sometime during the day. So the placement was perfect to get her message out.

2. Chrissy also knows that if there’s one thing that people are passionate about in the office, it’s their morning coffee, tea, or sodas. And when something breaks or runs out, facilities always hears about it in a hurry. So again, great idea to place the message here.

3. Chrissy also chose the perfect color: Yellow. It’s a bright color that stands out in the context of the darker coffee machines and thermoses. Yellow also has an association with a warning message for us software / web / mobile design people. It’s not red (critical!) or green (all good), it’s yellow. Perfect.

4. Last but not least, Chrissy chose a nice size and display for this message. It’s not overbearing or disruptive. But it’s easily legible from a close distance and the up-right frame makes it stand out in a crowded counter space.

I have to say, it gave me a smile. I was really impressed. “Sign her up for the UX team”, I thought.

I can’t wait to share this blog post with her when she’s back from her PTO. It should give her a chuckle.


The Remote Control that gives people Fits

This is the remote control from the Mesquite conference room at our office:

photo 1

At a glance, it may look like any other remote control that you’ve encountered in your lifetime. But this thing gives people fits. Especially newbies. Why? Let me share a little scenario with you (a true story, no less) to explain.

1. User enters Mesquite conference room to host a meeting.

2. User plugs in his computer and picks up remote control to turn on wall monitor.

3. User clicks big red button on the remote: Monitor comes on.

4. User hosts meeting.

5. User unplugs computer at end of meeting and picks up remote to turn off wall monitor.

6. User clicks red button. Nothing happens.

7. User starts waving remote around at different angles and clicking red button again and again. Nothing happens.

8. People in the room after the meeting start laughing and offer a suggestion: “Maybe the batteries ran out?”

9. User takes batteries out of the remote, puts them back in, points it at the monitor and clicks red button again. Nothing happens.

10. User walks over to IT Help Desk with remote in hand and tells them it needs new batteries.

11. IT Help Desk staff search around for batteries for 10 minutes then replace them.

12. User walks back to Mesquite conference room and tests new batteries by pointing remote at monitor and clicking the red button. Nothing happens.

13. User walks back to IT Help Desk and tells them the remote’s still not working. IT assumes the batteries must be bad.

14. IT opens a fresh pack of batteries and replaces them in the remote.

15. User returns to Mesquite conference room, points the remote at the monitor and clicks the red button. Nothing happens.

16. User walks back to IT Help Desk and tells them the remote still isn’t working.

17. IT Help desk staff walks with user to Mesquite conference room and tries remote. Monitor turns off this time! IT guy smiles and points out something the user didn’t notice.

So what happened here? It turns out there’s a separate “OFF” button on this remote. The big red “POWER” button only turns the thing on. Not off!

photo 1b

Boy did I feel stupid.

Yes, I was the user in the story and that was my first time using the fancy new monitor in the Mesquite conference room. And I made that mistake several times afterwards — clicking the red power button to turn the monitor off — before remembering that first experience and locating the OFF button.

I’ve also watched a bunch of other employees and guests make that same mistake. And they also felt silly when someone else had to point out the OFF button.

Are we all crazy to expect the big red POWER button to turn the monitor on and off? I don’t think so. There’s a design principle at work here. You may have heard of “Jacob’s Law”, as in Jacob Nielsen’s Law, which states, “Users spend the majority of their time on other sites than yours.”

Jacob was talking about Web design and the fact that people learn design patterns and formulate expectations about how things should work based on their experiences on other people’s web sites, not yours. So as a UXer, you have to be aware of those patterns and expectations and incorporate them into your designs to produce something that ‘just works’ for the user.

My experience with remote controls was that when you see a red POWER button, you can use it to turn something both on and off. I double checked the remote for my TV at home. Yep.

photo 4

I took a walk to the other conference rooms in the office. Yep.

photo 3

It was only that one brand new fancy monitor in the Mesquite conference room that had a separate OFF button that worked that way. So I and the others who made the mistake weren’t stupid. Someone else was. 🙂

But seriously, there is a lesson here. I’ve seen people laughed at for making that OFF button mistake in meetings on several occasions. I saw a customer who was visiting make the mistake and have someone else in the room have to assist him. I’ve also seen people get frustrated after making the mistake several times over and over when they should know better. And they blamed the remote not themselves! “STUPID REMOTE! WHO DESIGNED THIS THING?”

Is that the reaction you want to get out of your users?

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to break convention. There are times when you can do that. And there are times that you WANT to do that. But if you’re designing something for universal usage and a convention already exists for how to do it, you may want to follow suit to produce the best result.