Friday, November 04, 2005

Human Factors and wayfinding

On my way to Stanford Business School for a meeting last week, I got off the Caltrain at the Palo Alto station. It was a typical commuter rail station layout. There were tracks on two sides - running lengthwise past the station in both directions. On one of the ends was a bus station. On the other end was the parking lot. So to get to a street, you had to walk about 500 feet or so either across the parking lot or past the bus stop. With my Google Map in hand, I looked around for a sign to tell me either which street was in which direction or at least north or south. No luck.

One of the basic principles I use in my HF design is to minimize risk to the user. In this case, there is significant risk that increases the need for good signage.
1. There is time risk: it takes a long time to walk across the parking lot, only to discover it is the wrong way and you have to walk all the way back and then past the bus stop.
2. There is effort risk: all this walking is tough with two suitcases.
3. There is safety risk: my train arrived at midnight and there were some shady characters around.
4. There is independence risk (see previous post): In order to find out where to go, I had to approach a stranger and ask.
5. There is dignity risk (see previous post): I looked very foolish walking around the station for ten minutes trying to find a sign or at least a street name, all the while studying my Google Map.

Context is also important in this case. When designing a train station, I think it is obvious that many users will be tired from traveling (the Caltrain line connects to three airports as well). The trains run late, so many passengers will be doing this at night, and probably hungry (I know I was). And train stations at places like Stanford are even more sensitive because there are lots of people arriving for the first time (conferences, new students, visitors, etc.) who will be unfamiliar with the area.