The Perils of Poor Design

Recently, in Today at Sensors, Stephanie Henkel mentioned plans to instrument some New Hampshire roads to gather and disseminate data about road conditions to us, the driving masses. This is, hands down, a great idea. Unfortunately, another similar scheme in Calgary, Canada, isn't going quite so well because of a poor user interface.

What's That You Say?
User interface? For sensors embedded into the road? Yes indeedy. A news story on Citytv's Web site explains that in this particular application, the puck-like sensors are embedded in the road surface and change color to indicate freezing road conditions. The system is not a success. First, drivers are blissfully unaware of the sensors and their purpose. Second, the pucks change color from black to a dark red. I don't know about you, but I'd be pretty hard pressed to spot a small blob of dark red on a black road even if I knew to look for them. Did I mention that the drivers don't know that they're there?

So what gives? The idea—to give drivers a visual indication of dangerous road conditions—I think is a good one. The implementation and education is sub-optimal. I've mentioned before in this blog that in many cases, the better a sensor is at its job, the more invisible it is (the oxygen sensor in your car goes kerphlooey and your gas mileage goes south and your engine runs rough). This case cries out for sensor visibility. Make those sensor pucks turn neon green when the road temperature plummets!

Good Design
The story also highlights why, for devices that are either providing information to or for use by people, good design is so critical. It's not enough to iron out the engineering problems. If your product will be interacting with us, the great unwashed, and you want it to be successful then you'd better put in the time and effort to figure out how to make that interaction pleasant rather than frustrating.