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Bad Design 101: Crosswalk Buttons

18 October 2011 No Comment

I’ve been doing a lot of walking around Seattle this week, and at one busy intersection I started to notice that everyone hit the crosswalk buttons in pretty much the same way: about five frantic pushes of the button in rapid succession. But those buttons don’t need to be pushed multiple times—once will do, and I’d like to think that everyone consciously understands that. Yet without exception I kept seeing pedestrians thrash those buttons as if they were playing some weird shoot-em-up video game that would help them cross the street.

So what’s the cause of this odd behavior? Lack of feedback. There’s nothing in the crosswalk system that tells pedestrians, “The crosswalk button has been pushed successfully. Chill.” Without that kind of feedback, many people end up pushing that button a few more times “just to make sure”, and a new pointless habit is born.

Interestingly I didn’t see any mindless button mashing in Pioneer Square. That’s because the crosswalk buttons in that area of Seattle look like this:

When these buttons are pressed successfully, a red light comes on and a digitized voice yells “Wait!” (I was hoping to hear “Chill!” but whatever). Thanks to immediate audio-visual feedback one press is enough, and we know it.

The next time you see a lot of people all doing the same seemingly stupid thing, take some time to consider that they may not be stupid at all. Maybe they’re just yearning for feedback and are stuck in an environment that doesn’t provide any.

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