My wife recently began adding letters to the caps of the water bottles in our fridge (which we refill and reuse). I noticed this one evening as I reached to get a drink and saw that a number of bottles had a little ‘C’ scrawled onto the cap in black marker.
Around this time, my wife and kids had been getting over a summer cold and I assumed that the ‘C’ stood for 'cold', meaning that these were bottles they had used when they were sick and which needed to be thrown away once they were feeling better.
Not wanting to catch what they had, I grabbed one of the unmarked bottles of water and went on my way.
When is a C not a C?
A few days later, my wife saw me reach into the fridge and pull out an unmarked water bottle.
“Why aren’t you taking one of the used ones?” she asked.
I explained that I didn’t want to get sick.
She looked at me with a puzzled expression.
"They have a ‘C’ on them," I showed her. “That stands for ‘cold’, right? Because you used them when you were sick?”
Laughing, she grabbed one of the bottles and turned it 90-degrees counter-clockwise. Suddenly the ‘C’ became a ‘U’, which she explained meant ‘used.’
My wife had been marking the bottles that we had already opened, so we could continue to use those ourselves and save the fresh, unopened ones for guests. Rather than use the already opened bottles, however, I avoided them because I had misinterpreted the marking on the cap.
What's wrong with my car?
I recently read an article about a symbol that has begun to appear on vehicle instrument panels (see the symbol to the left). The article stated that, although this symbol was designed to be ‘idiot-proof’, 46% of those polled did not know what it represented.
Even after I had read the article, I still couldn’t decipher this symbol and neither could anyone in the Envision office that I showed it to. The designers of this symbol were trying to create something that would be universally understood, but if this icon starting blinking on my dashboard while I was driving, I would have no clue as to what was wrong with my car or how I was supposed to respond to the issue.
(The symbol stands for ‘low tire pressure’ – did you figure that out?)
What is a picture worth?
We've all heard the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words, but we need to make sure that we are using the right words when we choose ‘pictures’ for our designs. As we create user interfaces and turn to icons and symbols to replace lengthy descriptions or we look for imagery to help convey a message, we need to remember that what may be an obvious to us may not be so clear to others.
I'm pretty sure that the designer who came up with the ‘low tire pressure’ symbol knew exactly what it meant, but half the people polled about this symbol either didn’t understand it at all or took it to mean something else. In a similar fashion, I mistook my wife’s ‘U’ for a ‘C’ and responded in a way totally opposite to what she intended. Both of these cases are examples of something that was clear and obvious to the designer being not-so-obvious to their audience.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if they are the wrong words, the user experience you are designing could be in big trouble.
Ecstasy or agony?
I was working on a print ad for Envision's Virtualization practice last year. The full page ad was slated to run in the Providence Business News' Book of Lists. This publication's ads are typically very conservative, so we wanted to do something a bit edgy to shake things up a bit. We also wanted to have some fun and do something different than the other ads we had designed for virtualization.
Focusing on how awesome the experience of virtualizing with Envision is, I designed an ad (which can be seen to the left) that featured a woman’s outstretched arm clenching the sheets of a bed and a message that read, “Virtualization with Envision…Yeah, it's awesome.”
What I saw in this image was ‘ecstasy’, but after the publication questioned the tastefulness of the ad (which we expected them to do, since we were trying to shake things up a bit, after all), we showed it to more people and found that while some saw the same thing that I did, others saw ‘agony’ in this image instead of ecstasy. That was obviously not the message we were hoping to send!
In the end, we went with a different ad entirely, in large part because of our audience's varying interpretations of the image we had chosen to use.
The right words
You know what you are looking to accomplish or what message you are trying to convey, so select imagery that makes sense to you, but don't stop there. Once you have your icon or imagery in place, show it to others and see if what is obvious to you is obvious to them as well. Show the imagery in context so the feedback you receive is as relevant as possible and prepare to listen to that feedback and respond accordingly.
We will always have the need to use imagery of one kind of another in our work, from icons and symbols to photos and illustrations. Whether we are designing a website, an application or a print ad, understanding that the ‘pictures’ we use are indeed worth thousands of words, and being willing to ask others if the words they hear the pictures speaking are the same ones we wanted them to speak (and being ready to make changes if they are not) will help us ensure that the words we use are, indeed, the right ones.