Human Interface Design: Gas Pump

On a brief road-trip up to Olympia, Washington yesterday, we stopped at a friendly Arco station to, well, get some gas, but also look for weird c-store snacks. Of course.

While there, I spotted this pretty classic bit of Human Interface Design at the payment station:

The instructional sticker, placed on the pay station, is valiantly attempting to explain to people how to pay.

But, as you can see, instead of pressing the actual Enter/Receipt buttons, immediately below the instructions, people are desperately pressing the instructional sticker itself. (And not just once or twice — often enough that the printing has been almost completely rubbed off!)

Seriously, see it up close. And it's both sides, too.

While we could/should chuckle at zany dumb people — oh, heck, go on — I blame the designer. The fact that they needed to add a sticker in the first place should have been an immediate red flag that the overall design has fundamental problems. Consider alternatives quickly: is the LCD screen the problem? Is it hard to read? Since it can't be made higher because of ADA access, can it be made clearer, or more graphical and less textual, with better instructions? Can they use voice prompts ("now press the green enter button") tied to a big blue "help" button? Better yet, how about replacing the whole screen/keypad combo with a much-friendlier single touchscreen?

Still, even if they missed the dire "let's use a sticker!" klaxon, here's a good rule of thumb: don't make your instructions significantly easier to see / parse than the actual interface you're trying to explain. :)

Interestingly, this kind of stuff applies to software UI design as well. Any time we find ourselves having to over-explain a control, or hope that people read the documentation, or pray they stop and smell the tool tip, we'll usually back up and completely rethink what we're trying to do.

Regardless: hooray for people!

(For what its worth, someone at this gas station didn't like the Spanish instructions very much, either.)


Why do you have to enter the pump #? Aren't you standing AT the pump?

And yea, people are total retards about these sorts of things. I don't know if making the instructions any less stand-out-ish would have helped becuase then you'd just have people screwing it up / standing there with a stupid look on their face...

Definitely needs a total redesign.
Anonymous Anonymous 6/27/2006 9:49 PM  
Last I knew, Gilbarco was the only company in gas pump software. Monopolies don't make very good software.
Anonymous mac 6/27/2006 10:19 PM  
No, Arco has a pay station on each island, but you can't pay at each pump. I think they only take debit cards too, and then they charge you 25 cents. The hassle keeps me from going there.
Anonymous Michael 6/27/2006 10:32 PM  
Thats... really, really sad.

I cry for those people and their lack of...brain.
Blogger .Smith. 6/27/2006 11:35 PM  
There was an example in a book I read while researching my university dissertation that I often think of:

You know that thing when you walk up to a door and push when you should have pulled, or pulled when you should have pushed? You know how you always feel a bit silly for getting it wrong?

Don't; it's not your screw up, it's the designer's.

You'll usually find that doors you've tried to pull have some sort of handle, and those you've tried to push don't; this is learned behaviour. And as any good UI designed knows – software or otherwise – one of the first rules is not to do anything that goes against learned user assumptions. (Or, at worst, only do so when there's a very, very good reason.)

By putting a big, obvious handle on a door, the designer is suggesting to anyone who walks up to it that it should be pulled open simply because this has been most people's experience up to that point.

Pressing the sticker marked enter isn't a very stupid thing to do; its entirely feasible that it covered a touch pad. With a few ignoble exceptions, users tend not to be stupid – just rushed. It's the job of designers everywhere to communicate meaning and information to help people get through life with the minimum fuss, something the designers of this system didn't quite get right.
Anonymous Christopher Phin 6/28/2006 12:04 AM  
Yes, we Americans are stupid people. When we see big colorfull stickers, we like to touch them and see if they do anything.
Anonymous Mike 6/28/2006 7:33 AM  
yes mike you are rigt and the stickers are quite colorful.
Anonymous Luis 6/28/2006 10:14 AM  
I've actually witness people pressing on the large billboard part of the vending machine when their soda doesn't pop out in the manner they're accustomed.
Anonymous Jon 6/28/2006 12:54 PM  
The interface of these machines is terrible, I agree. What's hard to make out in the picture is that the screen says:

[input?] PUMP #

What it means to say is that you have to come back to the machine after fueling if you want a receipt, but the first time I used one of these machines I spent some time looking for the 'return' button because I thought there was an 'OR' elided from the on-screen instructions.
Anonymous ned 6/29/2006 9:04 AM  
I can't stand gas pumps. It always takes me 3 or 4 tries before I click all the right buttons in just the right sequence the particular gas station I am at requires.
Blogger Mike Matas 7/01/2006 8:19 AM  
This is why New Jersey is so great, we don't have to worry about idiots at our gas pumps, we pay people to press the buttons, not the stickers, for us.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/01/2006 9:29 PM  
Anonymous: Cabel doesn't have to worry about it either since he, too, lives in a state that requires pump attendants.
Anonymous ned 7/03/2006 9:37 AM  
25¢? Here in California, Arco takes 45¢, eliminating the couple cents per gallon their gas is usually cheaper than the neigboring stations.

Plus, their machines hate my debit card and centralized payment terminals are evil. Go from pump to terminal to pump (and then to terminal and pump again if you want a receipt). Evil.
Blogger Toast Radio 7/12/2006 11:29 AM  
This is a lot like something I've noticed for years at Exxon and Mobil stations. They have these little black plastic RFID keychains called Speedpasses that you wave at a little blue square that says "PLACE SPEEDPASS HERE", and when you do it, the Exxon Tiger logo (or Mobil Pegasus logo) to the left lights up, indicating that your Speedpass has been accepted.

But if you place the Speedpass over the logo that lights up, NOTHING HAPPENS. How hard would it be to make the area you're waving at light up?

Anyway, there are a lot of dumbasses at Exxons, because there are always big scratches of black plastic on the Tiger.
Anonymous Pete 8/31/2006 2:20 PM  
I'm sorry, but if I saw a big worn sticker that said 'Press' on it.. well I wouldnt read the rest, I'd just press it. :) Thanks for blaming the designers, I don't think I'm stupid.. :)
Anonymous Anonymous 10/10/2006 1:13 AM  

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Name:Cabel Maxfield Sasser
Job:Co-Founder, Panic Inc.
Location:Portland, OR