Ambiguous Visual Controls

Ambiguous Visual Controls: Lost in the Supermarket

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

Visual controls must at the very minimum be unambiguous, and either indicate normal versus abnormal or to positively specify a problem condition in order to be useful. Ambiguous visual controls are a waste of print and only good as examples of visual management practices to avoid. I stumbled upon one of the most ambiguous and supremely unhelpful visual controls while in the supermarket today.

This sign that boldly affirms “You are here.” does not tell me anything I don’t already know. While the map shows a large number of assistance centers across the store, it fails to indicate exactly which assistance center “here” is. Nor does it provide useful context for this information or any hint of what this condition of being here implies beyond the obvious.

Perhaps “You are here.” was meant not as a location specifier but rather as a vague but existentially reassuring statement directed towards any shoppers who may suddenly feel as though they were in a song by The Clash, lost and no longer able to shop happily.

  1. John Santomer

    October 17, 2010 - 1:52 am

    Dear Jon,
    Obviously a lot of work has been put in from the design and production of these visual controls. I may suggest a way for these not to be totally rendered useless. Also going thru the logic of the design used – the word YOU has a white circle. Similarly, a circular sticker with white background and a “YOU” word can be used to indicate the actual location of the visual locator wherever it may be inside he supermarket. It will be different for every locator as it would be propped up in different areas in the supermarket-one only has to stick this white cicular sticker with “YOU” wherever the visual locator is erected in the supermarket.

  2. sharma

    October 18, 2010 - 2:50 am

    and to add to it, theres also a signboard hidden by this “you are here” signboard saying : “oops … had a spill? please use towels for your convinence.” with no towels in sight.

  3. Robert Lohne

    October 18, 2010 - 6:23 am

    Maybe they tried something from The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy.It has the words “Don’t panic” printed in large, friendly letters, and that is apparantly very reassuring. Likewise in this case I guess. You are here. You are not lost, because if you were lost, you wouldn’t be here.
    Or, as John points out, they obviously forgot to mark down on the map exactly where “here” is in this context (these things usually tend to underline which “here” point you’re at)

  4. John Hunter

    October 18, 2010 - 7:39 am

    Well said. I am amazed how often such “you are here” signs are not useful. It is a pretty much solved problem and they obviously even get the idea – because they put up the sign. But too often fail to do the most useful part – telling you where you are (not just showing you a map of the store).
    Even the ones that do tell you almost always do so in a much less obvious way than they could.

  5. Joe Crowley

    October 19, 2010 - 11:19 pm

    I get the feeling the sign is missing a smaller sticker that was meant to be placed exactly where “you are” on the map as John suggests. Signs like this perhaps arrived at the supermarket all printed with the same image, and it was the responsibility of the team erecting the generic signs to place the sticker according to where the signs were going to be placed (rather clever and a cost saver). It seems too much effort has gone into the design of the sign for it to be rendered ineffective by missing such an important part as the “you are here” indicator. Either a lesson in ambiguous signage, or ineffective project execution. I’m making a lot of assumptions here (mistake no.1 in problem solving) and look forward to future updates each time you go shopping Jon.

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