Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.

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Protest over bussing

The Fourth of July celebration in my small Massachusetts town afforded a painful lesson in usability this year. This lesson was chiefly about poor signage, among other design problems, in the transportation of people to and from the celebration.

Like many American towns, mine put on a public fireworks display. It was held at our local recreation park, a large area with a man-made pond, playground, and bandstand. Because of the large crowd expected, the town used school busses to move people to the park from designated office parking la couple of miles away.

We arrived shortly before the fireworks began, and I was impressed with how quickly we were picked up and transported to the show. More and more people trickled in for the final half hour before the show began and everyone was in a good mood. The fireworks display was impressive, with a bigger finale and fancier explosions than in past years. The town seemed to have outdone itself.

It was only when the entire crowd got up to leave at once that the flaw in planning revealed itself. Once the show was over, everyone filed toward the busses in good order. When my family got there, though, we discovered a lot of confused people milling around, talking to each other and very few getting on busses. Apparently each bus was assigned to take people to one or two parking lots only and the bus drivers were refusing to let anyone not going to their specific lots onto their bus.

Aside from the fact that all the parking lots were within a short walk of each other, the real problem with this plan was the signs. After pushing my way through a crowd of confused people to the nearest bus and peering over the shoulders of several others, I discovered a tiny sign affixed to the bus at about 4 feet above the ground just to the left of the passenger door with laser printed letters in about 18-point type indicating which lot this bus was for. Well over a thousand people were all trying to squint at these signs all at the same time -- in the dark.

After spending quite a lot of time trying to get near enough to a few busses to discern a pattern in how they were labeled, we naturally discovered that we were at the opposite end of the line of busses from where we needed to be. And by the time we worked our way through the crowd, the sole bus allocated to our lot was full and we had to wait with several hundred other frustrated families.

And wait. In all the confusion, the first bus left about an hour after the fireworks ended.

So we waited for them to return. There was very nearly a riot, though, when we all discovered that they were returning and had begun parking in random order! The bus that pulled up where we had been patiently waiting with out children for over an hour now was not our bus! And since they were in random order, the bus driver initially told us that we'd have to go hunting (and squinting in the dark) for our bus all over again. Fortunately, the incredulous look the first person to hear this gave the driver seemed to impart some sense and after a moment's hesitation she let us all on.

All in all, it took us two hours to get home after the fireworks display in our own town. My children spent more time crying (much more) about wanting to go home and go to bed than they did ooing and aahing over the fireworks display.

There were clearly too few busses to take us all in one trip, but I think we could all understand that. The real usability problem was the in dividing the busses by parking lot and then labeling them so poorly. If the busses had been able to fill up from the front of the line and leave as they were filled without worrying about sorting us first -- or if the signs had at least been readable to allow us to do an effective job of sorting ourselves -- we would all have been home much, much sooner.

Design for usability is not limited to software and Websites. It's in everything we produce or plan for others to use. I think I will volunteer to design the signage for next year's celebration. Either that or watch the Boston Pops on TV!

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