Distress signals: user-generated solutions to usability problems

What a parking kiosk can tell us about the state of an experience

Months ago I drove downtown in the midst of a blustery winter storm and made the sensible choice to pull my car into a parkade. It was here that I met the Monstrosity.

The Monstrosity

This parking kiosk’s interface design falls so short of being an intuitive experience that folks compensated by adding external signifiers and instructions to guide motorists through the process of getting their parking ticket.

Despite these well-meaning (if inelegant) efforts, it was a struggle to get into the parkade. My mittened hand couldn’t trigger what turned out to be a touch-sensitive button in an outdoor parkade in a city where winter temperatures can drop below –40°C.

Distress signals: user-generated solutions to usability problems

I’ve taken to calling these distress signals—cases where users, businesses, and customers attempt to solve usability issues in the products they use by applying external signifiers and instructions.

I’ve been having fun finding and collecting examples of these distress signals. Some are as monstrous as the parking kiosk, while others have a surprising elegance in their solution.


The Monstrous

Like the parking kiosk, some distress signals grow and grow until the interface evolves its very own form of aposematism. Like a poison dart frog’s vibrant colours, the product cloaks itself in conspicuous markings that act as a visual signal to warn users this is gonna suck 👹.

Photo by hellie55.

The parking kiosk’s little brother

Make sure you’re not deaf, or you’ll never recover your vehicle.

The door locking process at the Caribou office

The complete instructions. RLY.
Locking up.

The Elegant

In contrast to the Monstrous, some distress signals have a surprising elegance—simple solutions to simple (while frustrating) issues.

The tap-to-pay terminal at the local grocer

Juicy.

The movie theatre seat selector

A small screen solution for a big screen experience.

The other tap to pay terminal

So positive 😊

Preventing and acting on distress signals

Distress signals are a reflection of users, employees, and business owners trying to solve usability issues inherent to the products they rely on.

That’s not their job.

It’s the product team’s job to design and validate well-crafted interfaces and experiences. It’s also the product team’s job to solve usability issues before they create a poor experience for their users.

User and usability testing finds and prevents issues before they impact the user experience

Bringing user and usability testing into the product development process is crucial for catching usability issues early. Testing can be performed at any stage of the lifecycle: during initial concept validation, while creating a Minimum Lovable Product, just before or just after launch, or as a checkup on the health of an existing experience.

Distress signals are pre-validated insights into creating a better experience

Actively look for cases where users have added external signifiers or instructions to your product to help others or themselves use it.

They might be physical labels on a device, a diagrammed step-by-step guide in a PDF, or a well-worn page in someone’s notebook that they reach for whenever they need to get something done.

Whatever form they take, distress signals are instant insights into real usability issues that you can act on immediately to create a better experience.

Have some examples of distress signals you’ve seen out in the world? Share them with us in a response below!

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Quinn is a UX Designer + Partner at Caribou, a user experience strategy and design consultancy in Winnipeg. We just launched the UX Lab, Canada’s first plug-and-play user and usability testing space!