Feedback: Here’s Your Sign.

Life is complicated, and designing to deal with life’s complications is difficult. Unfortunately bad design unnecessarily punishes humanity by increasing inefficiencies and frustrations. Design mistakes get made, and sometimes the mistakes cannot be easily corrected. However, it is difficult to imagine anything more destructive to humanity than bad design that affects many people that can be easily corrected, but is not, due to mental laziness by those in charge. This story is about a sign.

On Easter I visited Hoover Dam. Earlier that week we had visited some of the great National Parks in the area and marveled at the skill of the National Park Service in designing and redesigning access to some of the most striking places in the world. Knowing that the Hoover Dam, like the National Parks, falls under the Department of the Interior, I was disappointed to note that the Bureau of Reclamation does not lean into the problem like the NPS.

We (my wife, my civil engineer friend Mark, his wife Sandy, and I) pulled up to the dam, and submitted to a security check. The check consisted of a guard looking at us in the car and waving us through. We entered the parking garage and parked three levels up. We all got out of the car and walked towards the stairs that leads straight to the dam.

The stairs are right out in the open and provide a direct view of the dam in all its glory. It is quite a sight. We walked down the stairs, crossed the road and walked towards the visitor center.

Before we took the escalator down into the visitor center, a friendly guide was calling out the following message: “Please note that no food and weapons, including knives, are allowed into the visitor center”. I always carry my trusty Leatherman and had it in my pocket. So I turn to the guide, and say: “Why not let us know earlier? Now I need to walk all the way back to the car”

The guide says: “There are signs everywhere”. That statement was easy to verify when Mark (who also carries a Leatherman) and I walked back to leave our Leathermen in the car.

The guide was maybe a little correct. There were signs as shown above everywhere. They were next to every elevator and if one took the elevator, one may have seen the sign.

However, we took the stairs and this is where the sign was posted if one chose to take the stairs:

It is there; right at the bottom; the little yellow blotch. When you get to the bottom of the stairs the full downstream face of the dam is visible to the left.

And this is the signage at the bottom of the stairs:

When I came back to the guide, Sandy and my wife were having a friendly conversation with him and I managed to keep a smile and said: “You are right there are signs, but there is a signage problem”.

The guide had a ready answer: “Yes, the problem is that people do not read”.

I do not think the guide was a signage expert and do not personally blame him, but he was the tip of an iceberg of astonishing design stupidity.

I will just list a few pieces of that iceberg here:

  1. 1. A sign should be clear, and state what you want the reader to do. As such, you do not write a large message that, in essence, does not direct the reader to do anything and then provide much smaller script for the more relevant message.
  2. 2. You do not write a sign that reads like complex computer code. Note how the yellow sign allows you to bring small things that fit within the black box (such as a knife) and then in small script provides a specific exception with knives.
  3. 3. Why not include a picture of a knife in the adjacent sign that indicates “No firearms”? This is a graphic that everybody can understand; even the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.
  4. 4. While the sign was equally useless at the elevators, at least it provided the message before the customer left the parking level. But if one chooses to use the stairs, the sign completely disappears in the overwhelming rush of visual messages that the Hoover Dam provides once you walk out of the parking garage and see the dam.
  5. 5. Next, somebody who comes down the stairs will wonder where the visitor center is and will see the visitor center arrow and will go where the sign directs him. At that stage it is highly unlikely a person will focus on the other signs. In other words, the worst place to put this sign is next to another sign that provides vital information to the customer.
  6. 6. Why not post a sign right at the exit of the parking level walkway that leads towards the elevators where it would be immediately visible if it were a well designed sign? The walkway lacks other visual excitement and a sign would stand out like a sore thumb and it would only be a few feet back to the car to return the knife.
  7. 7. The sign at the bottom of the stairs is the first sign that tells the customer to keep their knife in the car. Even if it were the world’s best sign, it would still be a stupid location, since it would require a diligent sign reader to walk back a long way to the only place where the knife can be stored during the visit.
  8. 8. Clearly no thought went into the design of the signage. But fortunately there is such a thing as customer feedback, and, once it was discovered that the signage did not work, corrections could have been made.
  9. 9. But here is the cherry that tops the iceberg of stupidity: Just before one enters the visitor center the Bureau of Reclamation is paying one of their employees to tell people that they have to walk back to their car if they carry a pocket knife. Instead of trying to solve the problems with the signs, the Hoover dam managers simply lack the mental acuity to wonder if there could be something wrong with the signs they provide and, instead, simply assume people do not read signs. Meanwhile, that lazy conclusion wastes tens of thousands of dollars and annoys tens of thousands of people who come to visit the Hoover dam.
  10. 10. It is simply impossible to think that the Bureau of Reclamation is not aware of the signage problem. Inside the visitor center they claim that over one million people per year visit the dam. If one out of 100 people carries a knife, and if half of the people who carry a knife miss the sign (my personal sample is 100%, two out of two), there are still 5000 people per year (15 people per day) who make it to the guide and are turned around to return their knife to their car (I am not even including the people who end up returning their candy bars to the car). One would figure that somewhere in the Bureau of Reclamation somebody would say: “Isn’t there some other way to keep people from having to walk back to their cars?” This is the type of stupidity and managerial laziness that makes one wonder if the Bureau of Reclamation should be allowed to manage something as potentially dangerous as the Hoover Dam.

Once you get into the visitor center, the Bureau of Reclamation goes into overdrive to rapturously extol the brilliance, efficiency and drive of the people that built the Hoover dam. I wonder what happened to those human qualities once they were done building it.

UPDATE: I sent this blog link to the Bureau of Reclamation and they came back to me almost right away. They informed me they are fixing their signage problem. I look forward to seeing how the improvements will be executed. Feedback is a wonderful component of successful design. I changed the title of this blog accordingly.

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