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Aug. 6th, 2011 @ 08:13 pm The UX of confusing postboxes
UX, or User Experience, is the study of how users of a system, process, device or other object experience their use of it. The term is most commonly associated with software, in which it overlaps with UI design, but the following is not about software at all. It is about postboxes.

So Gordon and I went to the post office to buy stamps, envelop a letter, and then post it. On the way out of the post office, there were two large red postboxes on either side of the exit. But they looked very different. One of them was the stereotypical traditional English red postbox. The other one looked much less sophisticated; it was rectangular, cheap and devoid of design, almost like a rubbish bin. Our user experience was that we became unsure which one we should use; our intuition seemed to suggest to us that if they looked so different, they must have different purposes, and you wouldn’t want to throw your letter into the wrong one lest it take much longer to deliver. So we asked a shop assistant.

We were assured that “it doesn’t matter”. Apparently both boxes fulfill the same purpose. So we put our letter into the nearest one and left.

But this kept us wondering. How often do the shop assistants get this question from people? How often are people confused about the boxes, and how uncertain are they about posting their letters to the right box? In other words, what is their user experience? It is conceivable that we are in a small minority of people who worry about this; after all, Gordon and I are both somewhat on the autistic spectrum, so we notice such differences and expect them to be significant in some way. Maybe other people don’t even notice the difference or don’t expect it to matter; after all, both boxes are red and are clearly labeled “POSTBOX” in large-letter white paint. Maybe that is enough to reassure most people that they are doing the right thing by posting their letter in either box.

But let’s assume for a moment that a significant proportion of people do worry about it. How can you improve their user experience? Let’s also assume that the most obvious solution, namely to have only one postbox of sufficient capacity, is not available for whatever reason. Should you put extra lettering on the boxes to say something to the effect of “it doesn’t matter”? “We know there are two boxes, and they look different, but don’t worry, they are just the same”? That seems kind of weird.

Gordon came up with an interesting idea. British Royal Mail offers two delivery services, a more expensive next-day delivery — called “1st class” — and a cheaper but slower one, “2nd class”. So his idea was to label one of the boxes as “1st class” and the other one as “2nd class”, even though it doesn’t matter where you post your letters. This puts these doubts to rest. You now have one postbox to post your letter to; you now know exactly what you need to do and there is no longer any need to waste shop assistants’ time.

(For some reason, Gordon was impressed with my suggestion that it is the traditional English postbox that should be labeled “1st class” because it evokes connotations of trusted “luxury” service, while the other one should be labeled “2nd class” because it would be associated with cheap “economy-grade” service. I don’t know. It was just a thought.)

However, this plan now opens up the possibility for someone to post their letter to the “wrong” box before noticing the labels; in those cases they would certainly demand to ask the shop assistant about what to do. Although the shop assistant can still respond by saying that it doesn’t actually matter, the customer would (at least initially) be a lot more worried if they thought their letter with an expensive 1st-class stamp might now be treated as a 2nd-class item. Thus it is not entirely clear that UX is improved, or that less of the shop assistants’ time is wasted in total.
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From:c_eagle
Date:August 7th, 2011 08:40 am (UTC)
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You make a good point, particularly since it *does* matter over here... we have two slightly different ones side by side many times here.. and one is only for Express "Elite" mail for which people pay extra. If one goes into the wrong box, it usually gets sorted out, but it can be delayed.