“Ambient Signifiers” Subtle indicators to make you feel you’re on the right path

The web gives you the chance to do things that aren’t easily achievable in the physical word. It allows us to build metaphors and equivalent processes in a unique way. Take, for example, the fact that when you go to the supermarket you probably approach each aisle in the same order and generally from the same direction each time. Or, perhaps, when you go to your favourite spot on the coast in Cornwall you might take the same coastal path walk that you’ve done for years. Now, this is all fine if nothing ever changes, it becomes so familiar that you could do it without conscious navigation but what if they moved some items around on the shelves or they put a few houses along the coastal path, introduced some stiles and cut down a significant hedgerow? Though the route would be familiar it would not be implausible that you could get lost.

This happens all the time on the web. In fact, in the case of online banks, changing even the homepage style-sheet can result in hundreds of calls to a call centre to check that the site is still the same and is not a phishing cover-page.
Digital Patina
Back in 2002 when the BBC were doing a site re-design they introduced the idea of ‘digital patina’ (it may have emerged elsewhere beforehand, I’d be keen to know if it did) whereby a well-trodden path began to emerge online for return visitors. So, for example, if you regularly visited BBC Sport, the Sport section on the .co.uk homepage would darken over time. The point was not to ensure you always found the right link, your regular visits prove you had no trouble finding it, but rather it was to ambiently re-assure you that the site recognised you and was moulding to you like a well-worn pair of jeans. The BBC described it as ‘having a conversation with the user’.

In other cases this sort of subtle, unconscious cue of familiarity has a more direct role in keeping users on the right track. Underground or Metro networks the world over have to cope with both familiar and novice users completing the full spectrum of navigation paths from the short-stop to the long-haul. Over the years a host of navigation aids have been introduced: station names, coloured lines, matching carriage colours. In the case of the Tube in London the famous map takes its form from the very fact that the traditional ambient signifiers (landscape markers) do not exist underground. These are the obvious ones, but not everyone would realise that the ornate tiling at Tottenham Court road and at other parts along the network is a direct response to the need to introduce identifiable signifiers for the illiterate, which now work as effective ambient visual cues for today’s passengers. In Tokyo, the metro system is replete with unique chimes at each station, reminding the absorbed or dozing commuter that they are on the right route or perhaps providing an unfamiliar ‘wake-up call’ when they’ve over-slept or missed their stop.
Well Trodden Path & Visited Link Colours
There are two possibilities here for the web: Firstly, present some simple cookie-based JavaScript control of the CSS that identifies return visitors and applies style-sheet changes over time. Secondly, that the use of subtle, ambient cues is deployed across the site for everyone’s benefit. Taking these in turn it seems to be clear to me that the first is not widely applied, it didn’t even survive on the BBC and, as good ideas spread so rapidly on the web, I would assume that it simply doesn’t provide any benefit. The the well trodden path is retained in the users mind, much like last year’s footprints do not survive on the coastal path. It used to be the case that visited hyperlinks would be a different colour but this has declined over the years (through a natural coding evolution and the erosion of the ‘blue underlined’ hypertext convention) to such a point that users don’t expect this to happen and, from the usability tests I have seen, they don’t seem to be aware it is when it is employed. The only place where it still works effectively on a massive scale is Google, reminding you of which links you’ve tried.

Secondly, the subtle use of ambient signifiers to aide navigation is widespread on the better architectured sites. The use of relevant colour schemes (e.g. BBC channels online mirror their TV equivalents in colour and typeface), the subtle section colouring for Google, Froogle, Google Groups, Google Maps and Google Directory. But sites could go further. One cue which has developed by accident has been the use of different visual styles for secure or registered-user areas of sites. Traditionally many of these areas were built by IT departments whereas the main sites were built by marketing and creative agencies, the latter changing frequently whereas the secure/registered areas remain consistent. There is often a jump to a new window, occasionally stripped of navigation elements and so on. All of these visual cues remind customers that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Whilst there is a case for better brand alignment (particularly for reasons of consumer trust) which I and Marc at dancingmango (and here)have discussed recently, there is also a strong benefit from letting customers feel the join.
Still Logged In?
To end, two final examples. Sharing access to a PC (despite there being lots of capable hardware in the flat) means that I am forever going on to Amazon (UK), browsing around and then going to add stuff to my basket or wishlist before realising I’m logged on as my other half. Amazon are not good at making it obvious when you’re logged in. the “Welcome, John …” text is lost below the navigation tabs and I’m usually so task-focussed that the first thing I do from the homepage is search, ignoring the ‘recommended for you’ images which might have provided a first line indication that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d say this is a weekly usability annoyance that, even given the frequency that it occurs, as a user continues to thwart me. It genuinely surprises me that Amazon haven’t picked this up in testing. I simply don’t feel logged-in. On the flipside, the more contemporary styling of the US Amazon site instantly lets me know I’m in the wrong country without having to look for the $ signs. Finally, take a look at newsmap, a site I’ve mentioned in the past, try and work out what ambient signifiers are at work here … hint, it’s to do with recency and popularity…

The beauty of all this low-frequency stuff is that it doesn’t involve radical re-designs, adding noise to the page, icon development etc. etc. etc. It simplifies and clarifies the user experience. It makes sites feel bespoke or, in the BBC sense, as if they are having a conversation with you, but without needing to employ significant amounts of personalisation functionality.

:: “Ambient Signifiers, How I Learned to Stop Getting Lost and Love Tokyo Rail” – Boxes & Arrows
:: “The Glass Wall, The Home Page Redesign 2002” – Liam Delahunty
:: newsmap – data visualisation with ambient signifiers

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