Sunday, August 9, 2015

How not to a Design User Interface.

What has user interface to do in a Seattle blog? This is not a blog on computing practices or user interface design.

User interface does not only have to do with computers; it is any interaction that a user — any human user — has with any system. The system of concern to this blog post is the road naming system used in and around Seattle, in King County.

Ridership interactions, unless completely straightforward, can be said to have failed. I have seen at least two problematic, sometimes comical, ridership situations in recent months.
There is, of course, considerable documentation on the Internet about the road nomenclature applicable to most of King County, which contains cities like Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Seattle, etc. See, for example, Street Layout of Seattle. The Addressing and Directionals sections in that article describe quite in detail how to interpret the nomenclature.

From the Wikipedia article Street layout of Seattle, Addressing Section, we can glean the following:
  • STreets run eaST and weST
  • aveNueS run North and South
  • EveN numbered addresses are on the East and North side of the road (which is likely called a street or avenue)
As the Directionals section notes also:
Seattle and King County make systematic use of directionals (such as N for north or NE for northeast) in street names, although residents often omit the directionals when describing addresses in their own neighborhoods. To a lesser degree, street types such as avenue and street are also used systematically. ... A road, boulevardway, or thoroughfare with any other type designation may run in any direction. ... Furthermore:
  • "Streets" and other east-west thoroughfares prefix the directional; for example NE 45th Street.
  • "Avenues" and other north-south thoroughfares suffix the directional; for example 15th Avenue NE, University Way NE.
  • ...
  • "Places" are usually cul-de-sacs or dead-ends and run in any direction.
  • In most sections of the city, the same directional is used for both of these purposes; the exceptions are immediately east and north of the downtown area, and the lack of any directionals in the downtown area itself.
The problem, of course, is that the user has no interest to go through all of the engineers' thinking in order to find his/her way around. Imagine the following:
  1. If a user omits the directional on Avenues or Streets, there is some hope for learning about directionality because of the rule that the county has followed; Streets run East-West; Avenues run North-South. However, how many users do know, or remember, or even follow, this rule?
  2. If a user omits the directional -- prefix or suffix -- on a road other than an Avenue or a Street, we now have a confusing set of questions. e.g.,
  1. Did the user mean NE University Way or University Way NE? 
  2. Or, where the naming transitions from, say, North to South, which of the following four possibilities did the user mean: SE University Way, University Way SE, NE University Way or UniversityWay NE?
Consider the following situations:
  1. Rider on a bus wanted to go to an address that is really on, or closer to, 124th Ave NE, Kirkland. She started to alight as soon as the particular bus she was riding turned on to NE 124th St (from 98th Ave NE). Why? Because, she thought her destination had arrived. The bus driver knew, probably due to prior communication, that she should not alight right after the turn into NE 124th St because the rider's destination was much further along on NE 124th St., closer to 124th Ave. NE.
  2. I had to get a ride from the car service once. The driver of the complimentary shuttle took one look at my address and he immediately announced to the other rider, hinting that I'd be dropped first: "This is very close by." I wondered why he said that when, in fact, the place I needed to be dropped off was at least a mile away from the dealership. (He was right, however, if you considered the relative distances of the two riders; the other passenger had to be dropped off in slightly farther away Woodinville). The driver proceeded confidently to XXXth Court NE, in a direction opposite to where I needed to dropped off, when in fact I needed to get to NE XXXth Place, only to see his confidence shattered!
These two episodes tell us that while the engineers mapping out the streets in King County might have been very meticulous in the use of directionals, the average user of the street is quite unaware, perhaps even unwilling, to learn such steganographic usages of directionals.

What is the solution to this problem? That'll be a topic for another blog post. 

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