Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seeing the Signs

Recently I asked for thoughts on the intended meaning of the signs and the purpose of the ramps on a bridge in Chengdu, China (if you missed out on the post, you may find it helpful to read it here before continuing).  To refresh, here is one of the photos:

I'll share a sampling that captures most of the responses.

A reader in the US wrote:
"maybe you're only supposed to bike one-way since there's an arrow??"
Another reader in the US had a suggestion I had not previously considered:
 "No riding across the bridge without a cat."
A reader in Taiwan wondered:
"Maybe that means no riding bikes but other vehicles are allowed."
A reader in India provided several possibilities but was not satisfied with any of them:
"all these guesses don't make sense for various different reasons, but:
1. No bicycles allowed (only motorbikes, etc)
2. No riding in the direction indicated by the arrow
3. No parking your bike on the bridge
4. No sitting on your bike and using your hands while riding... only ride standing and no hands"
A Belorussian-Mexican residing in Switzerland (really) provided a particularly in-depth and colorful analysis:
"On the first photo I thought the sign referred to one-way Chinese bikers street.  Since this is definitely not the case, I see now only two possibility.... The most likely one is that this sign means "This will NOT be a smooth ride ahead", with bumps and all...  The second possibility is that this is an invitation to not ride towards the left during the course of this ride, for you'll crash against other riders or fall off the bridge... not too good....

Well, there's actually a 3rd possibility, and that's how I would in all seriousness interpret the sign. It probably means "Don't speed up! This is a fucking bridge for Heaven's sake, and perhaps you don't know it, but there's a fucking ramp ahead!"...(and at the bottom of the ramp the sign means "Don't speed up!  This is a fucking ramp for Heaven's sake, and you never know when it will become a straight bridge".  Since the sign was perhaps not self-explanatory enough, and a handful of Chinese individuals fell off the bridge/ramp, the authorities had to put some bumps to sort of control the chaos - yet, the sign shall just sit there for eternities... That's my explanation in all seriousness...."
[*note at the end of the post about my views on quotes involving colorful language.]

In a second attempt, the Taiwanese reader was the only person who submitted the "correct" answer.  Based on this, the varied responses, and the lack of confidence many expressed it seems clear that the signs are not effective in communicating their intended meaning -- at least to readers of this blog.

Before revealing the intended meaning of the signs, I'll share a few scenes from a similar bridge:

In this case, the stairs had a sign as well.  Since it seems that the stairs and their purpose are readily apparent it may not be clear why such a sign would be posted.  However, there is more context to provide.

Further down the sidewalk there was a ramp up the bridge.  But this ramp had a couple more signs than the ramps on the other bridge:

The sign with Chinese text asks pedestrians to use the stairs.

So, now what do you think?  Even with the additional signs you may still be unsure.

OK.  Now for the answer.  See here:


The sign indicates that it is not permissible to ride a bike on the ramp.  Instead, people are expected to walk their bikes.  However, the ramps are not intended for pedestrians.  The sign near the stairs is likely to further emphasize that they, and not the ramp, should be used by pedestrians.

The small hint I referred to in the earlier post was a partially obstructed view of a person walking their bike up the curved ramp.  And why did those ramps have what appear to be speed bumps?  I suspect it was a pragmatic response to manage the speed of bikers since the signs were not being observed.  Somehow, it feels poetic to simply quote the Belorussian-Mexican reader again and say, "yet, the sign shall just sit there for eternities."

There are host of issues one could explore regarding this example, for example the merits of "do" and "do not" signs in various contexts and whether people continuing to ride their bikes on the ramps is more due to the signs being ignored, the signs not being understood, or something else.  For now, I'd like to just briefly focus on one of the challenges in appreciating how others may interpret designs such as signs.

When I presented the photographs of the signs to a few people in Chengdu who had not seen them before their responses were similar to some of the responses I received from readers (none mentioned anything about cats, though).  However, when I asked some people sitting nearby the bridge about the meaning of the sign they responded with the "correct" answer as if it was obvious and they seemed incredulous that it wasn't the same for others.

In many cases, after one learns the meaning of such a sign it can seem to be "common sense" and be difficult to appreciate how others see it.  For related reasons, it can be challenging for a designer to appreciate how others will perceive and interpret what they've designed, whether it's a sign, a piece of software, an online service, a mobile phone, etc.  This is a large part of why an understanding of human psychology and how to conduct meaningful research can be crucial for successful design.

The impact of familiarity also relates to why for some types of research, it can be particularly advantageous to study a culture different from your own -- whether you're an American in China or a Chinese in the US.  Sometimes, having a "fresh" viewpoint will better enable you identify certain issues.  I'll be writing more about this in the future.

In the meantime, I'll make sure to keep an eye out for any Americans riding their bikes across bridges with their cats.


[*Note on how I quote: I generally will not edit/censor "bad words" when they are part of a relevant portion of a quote and when they are not used in a threatening manner.  If I error, I will do so on the side of allowing people to present their ideas in the manner they choose, whether to emphasize a point, add humor, express emotions, etc.  Others are free to interpret them how they want.  I think it's worth keeping in mind what can be easily and freely seen on someone's jacket while one walks down a street in the US.]

1 comment:

  1. Generally I STILL think the sign is confusing. However, by convention if I was traveling and was confused by an unfamiliar sign, I would simply watch what others were doing and make a leap of faith that they 'know' better! W.C.C.