Monday, July 23, 2007

Airport Signs and the documentation problem

Arriving in at Chicago O'Hare this morning I leave the security area by means of the door marked 'Exit' directly opposite the escalators comming up from the walkway from the terminal. This seems to me a natural choice. The airport planners on the other hand do not.

In the airport planners view of the world passengers get off the plane and head straight to the baggage claim, whether they have bags to collect or not. And so there is no reason for a passenger standing in the departures hall to be told the location of ground transportation, and if it did this could wait until after the building work has been completed.

I point out the lack of signs to a customer service rep. "You should complain to the City of Chicago", she injudiciously opines. I point out that the City expects issues of this type to be raised by its tennants.

Finding a taxi may appear to be a trivial issue, but after getting up early the last thing you want to have to do on arrival is to spend ten unnecessary minutes walking about trying to find out information that should be easy to find. Consider the same situation with two small children who are up past their bed times after a long flight.

The same problem crops up again and again with computer system documentation. The information you need may be trivial, finding it is not. What separates an efficient programmer from a slow one is often the strategies that they use to find information that they do not immediately have at hand.

Often the response to questions is the one I got when asking the customer service representative 'not my job'. Often the conclusion is reached that the system is unnecessarily complex. But the real problem is that the right information is not available at the point where you need it.

One of the reasons that the GUI interface has largely supplanted the once ubiquitous command line is that the repetoire of commands is always on view. The user does not have to remember what the command to change font is called, the command is there in the menu. The problem with GUIs is that as the system becomes large, finding the command can become an exercise in itself. Why is the 'Insert Text' option in the menu called 'Edit' and not the one marked 'Insert'?

Finding a taxi is not a complex task, it is a simple task that is made unnecessarily difficult because the party responsible (United Airlines) did not make the necessary information available. I think that in a lot of cases 'complexity' is used as a cop-out, a way to avoid facing the fact that either the system implementation or design does npot provide the user with the information they need.

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