Traffic Engineering is Interface Design

by Luke Wroblewski December 4, 2004

“The common thread in the new approach to traffic engineering is a recognition that the way you build a road affects far more than the movement of vehicles. It determines how drivers behave on it, whether pedestrians feel safe to walk alongside it, what kinds of businesses and housing spring up along it. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”
“[Traffic signs] are an admission of failure, a sign –literally- that a road designer somewhere hasn’t done his job. ‘The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there is a problem with a road, they always try to add something, in my mind, it’s much better to remove things.’” –Think!, Wired December 2004

I’ve seen one too many teams resort to the interface equivalent -explanatory text and/or increased visual weight- when an interface design was not “doing its job”. Following a usability test where participants “didn’t get it” the first reaction is often one of addition (what can we add to make this clearer?). Subtraction (what can we remove to make this clearer?) is considered far too infrequently.

“Every road tells a story, it’s just that many of our roads tell the story poorly or tell the wrong story.”

Effective communication is directly responsible for user comprehension of interactive systems. Visual organization can provide understanding and make relationships between elements and functions clear. Visual presentation (personality) says many things about an interactive system’s use and origins. In interface design we use these types of dialogues to communicate with our audience.

“When you design an interactive product, you are creating the setting for thousands of conversations. You are creating the language, which will be spoken between product and person.” – Marc Rettig

Looks like road designers and digital products designers alike might want to revisit their rhetoric 101 notes.