What's the Intuitive Way To Cross the Street?

Design is hard when there are competing intuitions.

Posted May 20, 2013

Seattle crosswalk buttons

Crosswalk buttons in Seattle

There's lots of talk about intuitive design. We want things that are easy to use, and easy to learn how to use. A great thing about our minds is that we can think of things in different ways. The dark side of that is that it's not always easy to make a design intuitive, because we can have competing intuitions. 

Here is a picture of some crosswalk buttons. You press these to let the system know you want to cross the street. Is it intuitive? 

In this system, you face the crosswalk you want to use, and press the button right in front of you. Yes, it's intuitive. 

Below is a picture of a crosswalk button system from Ottawa, where I live. 

In this system, you face the crosswalk you want to use, and then press the button that is right next to you. Is that intuitive? Yes, that kind of is too. But these are opposite systems. The reason there are competing systems is because there is more than one intuition for the designers to draw upon.

Which one is better? To answer that would require a user study. I live in Ottawa, and I see people pressing the wrong button frequently (I am sometimes able to resist the temptation to correct them). But I have not lived in a city with Seattle's system long enough to get a sense of whether people mess that up sometimes too. 

Ottawa crosswalk buttons

Crosswalk buttons in Ottawa