Where Science Meets Muse

When a Design Gets Ignored – Lessons From a Parking Lot

Posted by Plish on February 3, 2012

Went to the Post Office today and saw the above scenario and had to take a picture. (I roughed in a map of what the parking lot looks like.  Green arrows represent the designed travel path. The X’s denote cars oriented as seen in the picture.  I parked by the lone car along the entrance to the P.O.)

Despite the best efforts of planners to create a smooth flow to the traffic pattern in this lot, when the opportunity presented itself, everybody took the ‘easy’ path (which was, no doubt, started by one individual) and the people pulled through the ‘design intended’ slots, and into the next, enabling them, hopefully, to pull directly out, albeit awkwardly, without having to back-up.

I think we’ve all done what the above people did.   In a moment, we decide to park ‘wrong’ but we’re happy with what we’ve done because we think we’re getting a two-fer: Easy in – Easy out.

The reality is bit more complicated. In order to get out easily we need:

  • No one parking across the spot from us
  • No one parking behind us
  • No one parking too close to us
  • No one leaving at the same time
  • No one driving down the roadway the ‘right way’, looking for a parking space.

If any of the above occur, our path out is hardly easier than it would’ve been had we parked properly.

The lessons from the above are myriad, but the one that stands out is this:

If a design enables someone to do a task more easily in the present, with a perceived benefit in the future, that person will do the task the easier way, despite gentle reminders to the contrary.

The corollaries to prevent the above are the following:

  • Make it more difficult to do the task (concrete parking chocks would do nicely, but frankly, I don’t like them)
  • Eliminate the perception of future benefit (signs showing chaos if people park wrong, signs threatening ticketing, etc.)
  • If the preferred way of parking is more elegant, redesign! (This really could be done on this lot. Seriously, will anyone ever park in those spaces on the right side of the lot??)

The above scenario is a cautionary tale that highlights the importance of prototyping and experimenting to learn how your product will be used.  Testing needs to go deeper than just confirming that people can follow instructions and that people use your product as you expected.

You really learn about your product, and what people’s needs are, when you allow them the freedom to interpret the product and its use context, on their terms.

“But nobody followed the rules! They didn’t respect the traffic flow and slant of the parking spaces!”




One Response to “When a Design Gets Ignored – Lessons From a Parking Lot”

  1. […] I’ve blogged about a couple of other examples where people ignore the intended design of parking lots and walking […]

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