Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ambient Signifiers

Providing context and subtle cues for website usability ...

"One task we face on a day-to-day basis is how to effectively communicate ever-increasing amounts of information within increasingly richer and more complex web contexts. While living in Japan, I discovered an approach used as part of the way-finding system of Tokyo’s rail network that has a number of interesting implications for user interface design.

Tokyo’s rail system is famous for being the most complicated and bewildering in the world. With over 1,000 stations, even locals get lost and disoriented. As a designer, I try to be aware of attempts at systems and methods of communication. While traveling the Tokyo rail lines, I quickly realized that apart from the obvious use of real-time electronic signage, colored trains, and audio announcements, there were also other techniques being used to assist travelers in knowing where they were, and where they were going. These techniques were subtler, and bordered on subliminal; this was what really interested me.

... To daily commuters, the station melodies augment the existing ambient landscape (going through tunnels, turning corners, large landmarks, etc.), so despite not necessarily paying attention to the visual cues around them, travelers subconsciously start building up a “landscape” of their journey based on these audible inputs. They quickly learn the melody of their final destination terminal (it is played incessantly as they wait on the platform for their return journey), and soon recognize the melody of the terminal that precedes theirs. After long-term use of the same route, commuters build up a unique chain of melodies that accompany them on their way home. Without necessarily realizing why, they begin to establish a familiarity with these sounds, and can quickly discover when they have overshot their destination by hearing an unfamiliar melody that indicates a strange place.

I call these cues ambient signifiers: design elements that communicate subtly as part of the environment’s ambiance. Although subtle, this technique has a noticeable impact on assisting passengers to their destinations and so increases efficiencies in the rail network. When dealing with such large congestion and complexity, any efficiency improvements will have massive benefits for both the rail infrastructure and Tokyo itself."   (Continued via Boxes and Arrows)    [Usability Resources]

Patina - Note the blue box getting darker. - Usability, User Interface Design

Patina - Note the blue box getting darker.

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