Parking Garage

Your daily reminder that your UX probably sucks a little.

This is a parking garage entrance in downtown Fort Wayne Indiana. I was sitting across the street from it at a coffee shop (Fortezza, if you’re in the area) and watched driver after driver repeat the same exasperated scenario. Each would-be customer would pull in cautiously; pause for about 15 seconds; and then, awkwardly, try to back out. After the fifth or sixth person did this, I looked closer at the parking garage and saw there was a UX lesson here.

Like most parking garages, changing your mind about parking involves having to tuck your tail between your legs and awkwardly back out into a street filled with traffic and pedestrians. Each person was visibly upset from repeatedly sawing at the steering wheel and brake checking. The grand finale of these aborted parking attempts was always the driver mashing the gas and roaring off in a rage to find parking elsewhere.

Every time this scene played out, I just shook my head. What is wrong with these idiots? The garage was open. I had parked there myself. You didn’t need a pass, and there were plenty of open spaces. Then, I looked closer at the signs these people, who probably have never parked there before, saw when they drove up this garage. Signs I ignore because I use the garage frequently. It’s basically a wall of, “Get Lost!”.

So lets put ourselves in the shoes of the first time visitor. It’s an unfamiliar place, and we’re in a hurry to get somewhere. I don’t know about you, but the first thing my eye goes to is the gigantic, “AUTOMATED PARKING SYSTEM CREDIT CARD ONLY” sign. How is it automated? Are spots assigned? Do I need to know my PIN? Whatever the actual questions running through the brain of a first timer are — the sign is enough to make them think this garage operates differently somehow from other garages. Otherwise, why would they make such a big sign for it?

Above the left entrance, where we can see a ticket machine and a bright yellow gate (normal indicators of a garage entrance), there is a “Do Not Enter” sign. The actual entrance is on the right, marked by the light grey sign with white type. The ticket machine is hidden from view by barricades and the gate is way up there in the dark. Worst of all, there is a big red “X” which means what? Lot full? Don’t enter? Trust me, no one wasted any time trying to figure it out. They just left.

Finally, there is a “Private Property” sign. It’s not there to inform you that this is a membership only garage or anything. It’s to remind anyone who rolled up on Rollerblades that they will be fined for trespassing as well as not keeping up with the times.

All of this takes what should be a simple task of putting a car between two yellow lines, and makes it into an incredibly frustrating situation for some people. It’s also a real life example of the kinds of frustrations new users to your site may be experiencing that frequent users, and you, are blind too.

Think about it. All any of us want to do is buy something, or get information from a website. However, how a site is designed can make that damn hard to do sometimes. When we build these things, we get comfortable with them and build mental models to work within them. We forget about the people coming to the site for the first time. Content is added that distracts or prevents other more important content from loading quickly. Menus become too complex, or sometimes too clever, to be quickly understood and easily used. Buttons and links unintentionally mislead based on how they are written or designed.

The first step to fixing these problems, and making your site less of a nightmare to use, is to remember this — build your site for your customers, not you. Or, if you are one of the few people not working in-house yet; build the site for your client’s customers.

Your site’s content is the only reason anyone is coming to your site, so start there. Make it easy to access and easier to scan and quickly understand. Ask yourself how succinctly you can say what you need to communicate.

Remove anything from the page that distracts your users from doing what they came to the site to do. This can be anything from a pop-up asking to sign-up for a newsletter, to a huge image, or video that takes forever to load and pushes real content down the page.

Finally, don’t obscure or hide the important stuff. Carousels are horrific UX because they hide so much content. Make the most important thing the hero image and then remove or place the other stuff on the page. Trust me, people are not as in love with your carousel as you think. They are not going to spend the time to click through anything in there.

I can almost guarantee you that when the above parking garage opened it was dead obvious how to come in, park, and pay. Over time though, signs were gradually added to “help” people. We do this same sort of thing on the websites we build and manage. So, take the time to step back and look at everything on your site, piece by piece.