Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Perils of Limited UI Real Estate

Grovery signage
I got to thinking the other day about how many grocery stores have signs that are nearly illegible. Theaters and churches, among others, also use this kind of signage, but only with grocery stores do you regularly see such blatant examples of bad spelling, truncation, run-on words, and weird abbreviations, not to mention somewhat counterproductive lack of punctuation (349 pounds of BFTOPSRLNSTK instead of $3.49 per pound).

Is it because stores don’t have the budget to afford all the requisite characters required to advertise their weekly specials?

My wife pointed out, perhaps it’s that as people speed by these signs, they cannot read a full explication, or read multiple such entries on a sign: they need a code, a shorthand, which they can more or less easily interpret at a glance as they pass. Maybe it’s like an inkblot test, you get a general sense of something being on sale. But it’s a chicken/egg question, I think: perhaps the customers have had to develop an ability to read such a code because that’s what’s provided. (This is akin to TV networks broadcasting crap because “we broadcast what people want to watch” but people watch crap because that’s all that is broadcast….)

Anyway, my wife’s idea does beg the question of why, if this code is effective, then it’s only grocery stores that use this “shorthand.” If I’m driving too fast to read “Beef Top Sirloin Steak,” wouldn’t I also be unable to read “You Can Trust a God with Nail Holes in His Hands”? (Actually spotted in Bellevue.) Wouldn’t the latter be more effective as “You Cn Trst a Gd w Nail Holes in His Hnds”?

More likely it is because the signs don’t have the space necessary to fully spell out a product. It’s a common issue in UI design: real estate constraint adversely affects the ability of the UI text to adequately convey information, thus ultimately hampering the usability of the interface. And it’s been proven that usable interfaces generate more customer goodwill, which translates into, well, filthy lucre. For a relatively limited cost of a larger sign (not that I advocate larger signage in principle) the store might eventually make a considerable profit from folks actually being able to take advantage of the advertising!

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