Here’s a road sign in my town.

What does it mean?
What does it mean?

The first time I drove by this sign, I was flummoxed. I knew that it had to do with yielding and pedestrians, but for some reason I just couldn’t take it all in at one time and get the complete message. The “HERE”, the arrow, and “TO” made me think: “Here to…where?”

I felt embarrassed that I was confused by a public road sign. Then I remembered something I had read in a splendid book recently: If you see an object for the public’s use, but don’t understand how to use it, it’s not your fault. It is the product designer’s (in this case, the sign designer’s) fault.

The Design of Everyday Things explores the dos and don’ts of good design, and describes principles that enhance and detract from object usability. It’s fascinating to me.

I’m not a professional designer, but I believe that there are specific flaws in this particular road sign:

  • Mixture of multiple words and multiple symbols
  • Indistinct relationships between components
  • Indistinct sequence
  • Redundant words/symbols

I think it would have been clearer — better — without the HERE and without the arrow. HERE? Really? Where else would you obey a road sign?

Wouldn’t this be better?


So simple, so strong.

OK. Glad I got that off my chest. I’ve seen this confusing Yield sign in other towns now, and it makes me wonder if other folks in other locales have also been confused, at least at their first viewing.

The moral of the story: The next time you are entering a building and push the door when you are supposed to pull it…it’s not your fault. Or when you are trying to get coffee out of a coffee machine and you push wrong buttons…it’s not your fault. Or you find yourself staring at a microwave, not knowing how to make it start…it’s not your fault…etc. etc. etc.

Any designers want to chime in on this?

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10 thoughts on “If You Don’t Know What to Do, It’s Not Your Fault

  1. I am so glad you have relieved me and many others of blame for our own incompetence. It’s not MY fault I can’t look at the microwave panel and figure out which button to use, after all, the designer should have ME in mind when he/she designs the product.
    I am so tired of hearing excuses from people who obviously screw up and blame someone else. The Yield Sign? It’s very clear. You stop where the arrow points to yield to pedestrians. There may be a cross walk 10 feet ahead, but they want you to stop at the arrow (which is USUALLY followed with a white line across the road to indicate where to stop). So if you hit a pedestrian there, it’s not your fault because the sign designer didn’t confer with you before putting the sign there.
    Grow up and take responsibility.

    • Hi Jay,

      I figured I’d get some push back on this; thanks for engaging. I’m glad the sign communicates well to you. It doesn’t to me. As to the microwave designer having YOU in mind when he/she designs the product, that is exactly the mindset they should have. But many things aren’t designed with the user’s success as the primary design value, and that’s a bad thing.

      So this isn’t about responsibility. Of course people should obey all the traffic laws and be held accountable. What I’m talking about is good design and bad design.

      Incidentally, that is why QuickBooks dominates its market. They have crafted a great user interface that is quickly understood by the vast majority of its 4.5 million users. Intuit’s developers/designers did in fact design Quickbooks with you mind, and that’s a good thing.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Your simple sign “YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS” doesn’t really convey the intended message. If I see a pedestrian, should I stop what I am doing and wait until they have passed… even though they may not be crossing in front of me? How about “Yield to Pedestrians IN CROSSWALK”. I agree that items need to be designed with the end user in mind. In the past, I’ve been involved in designing, manufacturing and implementing hardware for the International Space Station. We had designers, manufacturers, trainers, operators and astronauts in the beginning stages. Simple concept, bring the end user in on the design and manufacture stage and you will produce a better product.
        By the way, Quickbooks is not without it’s problems. But I’m not crying out that it’s not my fault that I am having issues with the way it works. It’s not someone else’s fault that I can’t get a report that I need the way I want it. Nobody from Quickbooks asked me how I wanted it to work.

        • Jay,

          Yield to Pedestrians
          IN CROSSWALK

          Bingo. Good job. You should be in charge of Colorado road signs.

          That’s very interesting that you designed things for use on the ISS, where user success would be of critical importance, but at the same time, the expectations of user competency would be extremely high. I would think that would pose special challenges all around.

          In the book I referenced, the “not my fault” idea is actually a reaction to what most people experience when they encounter bad design. Studies show that when people are stymied by a product, they think to themselves, “I don’t get this; I’m an idiot.” The assumption most people make is that if they can’t figure a product out, it’s their fault. But it’s not. It’s the designer’s fault for creating a poor, non-intuitive design. And the book goes on to give examples of both good and bad designs. Ever since I read the book, my radar is always up for good and bad examples I see in real life.

          Thanks for your follow up.

  2. As an immigrant I was always puzzled with so many ways to dispense a paper towel at the public restrooms and many ways to hide a power button on a vacuum cleaner. If I ever had to do stand up comedy that’d be my routine, to talk about this stuff.

  3. The particular problem with the word YIELD is that most people do not know what it means but put a police car in the median or near the sign then EVERYONE knows what it means.

    • Hi Russ,

      You’re right. There’s a tiny community in the mountains near here that always has a police car parked at the edge of town across the street from the 20MPH sign. I’ve never seen an officer in the car — I don’t think an officer exists, just the car. But it gets the job done. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Excellent observations and insight. The constraints on road signs — namely sign size and the very short time during which the driver must see/read it and respond appropriately — makes for an amazing design problem. Including the yield sign within this more complicated “yield here to pedestrian” does well in disregarding both. Including the entire yield sign takes up a lot of space — so much that the actual lettering “YIELD” is way too small to read, unless if they’ve kept it its usual size, in which case the actual square sign must be huge. Assuming it’s a little smaller, it’s certainly difficult to read the little red “YIELD” lettering… but no one reads that anyway. The decision to use the familiar yield sign as opposed to printing “YIELD” when the sign has a more complicated message is meant to capitalize on the intelligent “instant recognition” that *good* road signage draws success from using singular symbols. The psychology of incorporating language to road signs is very interesting, from syntax to fonts and capitalization, much is taken into account to facilitate word recognition. The aim is to minimize symbol recognition time, and so looking at a red hexagon is likely to be more immediately recognizable than a string of four letters S-T-O-P, (though we read it so quickly, it seems as though we see the word as a whole, not as a string of characters).

    At any rate, this sign’s designer knows that the nested red and white triangles are instantly recognizable, and the sign’s triumph is that it bypasses English-language and goes straight to action. YIELD. It’s not language, it’s action. Your observation about mixing symbols and language is exactly what makes this sign so perplexing to me. The designer wants to use the yield symbol (after all, the written word is negligibly small) by showing you the sign, bypassing any sort of English-language in order to get straight to the action. But then it seems the driver is actually meant to still read the word, or at least think the word in English, as it is necessary for the English sentence that this encrypted in this sign. You must explicitly translate this series of symbols into YIELD HERE TO PEDESTRIAN, but this brainteaser is not going to let you go about your day mindlessly. You are required to translate two out of the three symbols in words, while not including the arrow symbol in this sentence because, yes, it is redundant to the “HERE”. But it also seems like it could be in reference to the “TO”. Perhaps this is the most confusing part, because, as you mentioned, the arrow and the “TO” also made me anticipate some kind of prepositional structure in mapping the “HERE” to some other location. Arrows can serve to point but they can also symbolize range or motion. What’s more, getting the syntax right is key to understanding this sign, and there isn’t a linear presentation of the symbols.

    Hilariously, I think the sign would be more fluent if “HERE” were omitted and “2” were substituted for “TO”.

    But, then again, let’s not forget “Face With Tears of Joy”’s honorary status as Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year 2015. This is the way of the future!!! Great post.


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