Stoplights Suck

Design and the physical world.


Just before the culmination of that limitless and intoxicating dream you’re having, you’re rudely awakened by the obnoxious sounds of your alarm clock. Your eyelids weighing like a ton of bricks, muscles lacking all adrenaline. One can’t even imagine what the actual temperature of the air above feels like, as you languidly pull your body out of the bed it’s sunk so deeply into. That seems as if it’s an accomplishment within itself. You pound down your morning cup of coffee, so quickly nowadays that it’s without even realizing it actually has taste anymore. But this daily routine and habit pulls you free of any feeling of lethargy.

As you ready yourself for a productive day, you get into your car, and within a few seconds you’re shifting into drive and going five over the posted speed limit. You soon find yourself daydreaming of what the day will bring. Your mind starts with logical conversations with coworkers, ideas you might consider poking at, but before you know it, you are subconsciously fast-forwarding and rewinding through unrealistic scenarios where you achieve the unthinkable. Then click, you snap back to reality and you’re dead still sitting at a stoplight. That red light is just beaming at you as if it is laughing in your face, knowing that if you choose to disobey, it’s your wallet that suffers. Even if you had that urge, you couldn’t anyways because you’re surrounded by nothing but impervious surfaces. But hey, it’s a stoplight and they are everywhere. That’s just life and you’ve learned to live with them.

Traffic on one side of the intersection starts progressing. They stop, then the next side starts. Every time you see a change in movement, cars around you inch forward as if they are getting a head start to win the Human Race. After what seems like five Billboard Top 40 songs have played, it’s your turn. It finally turns to that trusting, encouraging primary color of light: green. You’re now optimistic that the day will continue. The person up front doesn’t move. Unaware of the presence of the glowing emerald green light, the three seconds of hesitation cause the anxiousness and fury inside people to instantly show. Horns sporadically honk, while one angry citizen holds on his, literally until the car in hiatus sputters out of sight. You’re only four cars away from safely assuming you can pass through and carry on with your life. Two cars get through, then yellow happens. The third zips through as if his life depended on it. You have to stop. For one agitated moment, you feel how simple it could have been and how quickly you could have just pushed through and moved on. But how could one additional car not have gone through! Back to square one.


There have been minor attempts to address some of these issues, but they are typically just patches on existing methods with expensive, ugly, and not-so-elegant solutions. By the time a city designs, paves, landscapes, and finishes a road or intersection, millions of dollars are spent. Then, two years later, they look to modify the existing design because there was little thought put into the original. They then dig huge holes in the asphalt to install detectors, then re-pave it again. That way, the system can detect when a car is waiting to proceed. For instance, if I am driving at 55 MPH down the road and am soon approaching the intersection, and another car inches up to the intersection to cross my path. It detects that other car, tells me to brake from 55 to 0 MPH to let him cross, then it gives me the green to go ahead and continue. So in all, this solution reduced the other car’s waiting time, but created a waiting time for me–which in turn costs more money in gas waiting and accelerating, and affected all the cars behind me as well. Times that by millions, and you can see how a poorly designed solution affects life.

But don’t accept that. Just because something is poorly designed and millions of people use it, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Go do it better. Think about where the current version fails and capitalize on those aspects. This is exactly why there is competition in business today. If all products and people were the same, this world would be a boring place. In the end, if what you’ve created is a practical and elegant solution to the existing problem, over time it will speak for itself through numbers. As a Product Designer at Facebook, I love to use the example of Instagram. A wonderfully fantastic product that puts even more emotion into already emotional content: photos. When it was first created, its primary focus wasn’t to have the most visually appealing and award-winning design. It was to let people accomplish the task of adding stunning filters to their photos and share them with the world. It was that ability which made people grab it by the masses. If it were the most beautiful product in the App Store, but it was difficult to add filters to photos, it would have instantly failed. It was given the architecture and capabilities to do what it does, then refined over time to pixel-perfection.

Not everyone is a Designer, nor does everyone think the way we do. That is what makes us special. We can relate. We have empathy. We know efficiency. The only time we don’t show the most efficient manner of accomplishing a task is when someone else higher up the food chain tells us differently. Our lives revolve around our screens, sucking us into social networks full of beautiful connections and conversation, games that challenge us with every move, and day-to-day activities that help us do our jobs better. We can’t forget that our expertise extends much further beyond what people hold excitedly in their hands. Like reading a good book, thinking outside of the norm will challenge and stimulate your mind to make you better at what you do.

Every time I sit at a stoplight, I instantly start brainstorming all of the endless possibilities of what the interaction and experience could be for that ever-so-present, tangible, yet wasteful part of our lives. There was a need to solve the problem of two objects crossing paths simultaneously. The solution was probably the most affordable method at the time that was continuously adopted without a second thought. Now, the world revolves around that experience billions of times per day. That experience consists of 80% of the traffic sitting and waiting while 20% progresses… at every stoplight in a world of 7 billion people. Now, I don’t have the perfect solution (although I have my ideas), but I see the opportunity to capitalize on. I don’t just think about what new app I could make that will solve this problem, but also how I could design the physical world to provide a more efficient experience for people on a tangible level.

It’s not just stoplights. It’s everything. Look at the buildings around you, from its structure and floor plans to how it lays within its real estate on the city block. If you had the opportunity to design a city from scratch, think about how you would transport mass amounts of people in and out, how businesses and places could be grouped for ease of use and accessibility, how it could scale up with ease as the population skyrockets. Think about how signage leads new or unfamiliar people that depend on its guidance. Know that one can never assume people just know how to get onto the nearest freeway entrance from downtown. This fails miserably today. At some point, somewhere, a person made a decision to put every object where it is. That person could have been the business owner, the construction worker, or just some guy that doesn’t like his job and doesn’t care what comes of it. As these decisions are made over and over, experiences become unpredictable for people. One intersection is a stoplight, the next has a median, then the median disappears again at the next one. People can’t anticipate what’s going to happen or come up next, so they hesitate because they are scared, and frankly, can’t assume. Think about what made the best NBA basketball guards, like John Stockton, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, so great. They were able to see the floor ahead of them and where their teammates were going to be, before they were even there. They were predicting the future. They anticipated what was going to happen, and since they could do this so well, their performance was remarkable.

The moment people hesitate to make a decision, their performance is degraded. People are constantly making decisions, whether it’s on their smartphone, deciding which road is the right path to their destination, or even taking guesses at how to do something. Over time, as they guess at these decisions, their satisfaction drops drastically and they only continue to use your product because they don’t want to spend money to buy a different one–a better one. Imagine you are in your kitchen and you have two places you usually write down your shopping list, one is on a notepad on the counter and the other is a marker board on the pantry door. You are washing your hands at the sink and remember you need to get milk. As you turn to go write it down, you instantly hesitate as to which direction you should go to write it down because you know both options exist. That split second of hesitation degrades performance. Although people may not know it, our job as Designers is to make those decisions invisible. Not existent, rather. As people depend on their mobile devices more and more everyday, experiences must provide a clear path for people to swim through. Although there are always a large handful of actions you want to provide people, the most successful experiences pick the one single most important experience and optimize the design around just that. Of course, this is the hardest thing to achieve when there are multiple hands in the bucket. You always know when something has been designed successfully when you never hear anything about it ever again–your praise for great design is when people just keep using it. But you will always hear complaints when something is under-designed or broken.

It’s sometimes hard to swallow the fact that visual design does not precede the architecture of systems. Through the strongly opinionated eyes of Designers, everything must be buttoned up in a perfect package. Everything must be cohesive to the point of obsession. In reality, there is no minimum viable product in a perfectly packaged product. Everything that is successful starts with a well designed base, or architecture, and grows from there. One must learn to stand before learning to slam dunk.


We can apply this thinking to our everyday lives, helping to influence the practical design of everything around us. Although it can be hard to break the mold when influencing an antiquated mindset, good design will always speak louder than words. Stoplights suck and boy I’d love to see a world without them.