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Clever signage improves usability

This sign – PLEASE HOOT – made me almost laugh out loud in delight!

Sign on gate: please hoot
Sign on a gate – PLEASE HOOT

No Hooting. We see signs like that everywhere here in South Africa:

Sign on gate: no hooting
No Hooting sign with a symbol
Sign on gate: no hooting
Strong instruction in uppercase


After thinking about it, I realised the clever usability issue this way of announcing yourself at gates solves: it removes the interface that can cause usability issues and simplifies it.

Intercoms at gates

With our high walls and crime rate in South Africa, intercoms at gates are ubiquitous in our suburbs.

An intercom solves the problem of who is allowed access to your property. With an intercom, the owner also has the opportunity of not letting in unsavoury characters looking for work or people trying to sell them something or a religion. (Pranksters can have a field day, randomly pushing intercom buzzers and running away!)

Intercoms can cause frustrations

Gaining access to properties using intercoms can be one of those awkward usability moments like opening doors (It’s not you. Bad doors are everywhere).

My experience is that many gate intercoms aren’t user-friendly: often you can’t reach the intercom control panel because you’ve not parked close enough or it is designed so that it can’t be reached easily from an open car window; forcing you to step out of your car to push the buzzer. (That moment can leave you vulnerable to being hijacked in this country.) Often there’s no feedback (did it work? make a call to the house?), a fundamental principle for good usability; any mark or sound, any perceivable indicator that communicates appropriate behavior to a person, professor and author Don Norman explains.

What if you removed the intercom?

What if you removed the infrastructure (intercoms, cables, remotes, batteries etc.) and made it simpler to signal you’re at someone’s gate?

By displacing some parts of the announce-I’m-at-the-gate task – moving the responsibility from the owner (providing an intercom interface) to the visitor (honk their horns) – you could help solve the sometimes awkward usability problem of how to signal you’re at a gate.

Start quote

But if you understand the trade-offs, displacing the right roles to the right devices works well. One of the secrets of creating simple experiences is putting the right functionality on the right platform or part of the system.
Giles Colborne, in Simple and Usable (page 160)

End quote

Encouraging a new hooting practice

I could imagine a world where hooting to signal that you’re at a gate could become the norm. We’d contrive a honk-honk that means “I’m at the gate”, like the deliberate beeping or missed calls between mobile phone users in some parts of the developing world to communicate something.

Who’s at the gate?

Granted, with such a simple solution, just a friendly sign, owners would not know who they are letting in.

Room for innovation

In the future, I’m sure innovators will come up with new ways to solve the announce-I’m-at-the-gate task: a mobile App, RFID tag or the like. Also, cars will be driverless.