Ambient Signifiers

Posted on September 20, 2006

Ross Howard wrote a very interesting article on Boxes and Arrows called Ambient Signifiers. The main concept of the article is how we, as designers, can add more ambient signifiers to websites to make them more usable and give users more subtle cues as to their location and state within the system. Ross uses a great example of what an ambient signifier is:

“When on my regular commute on Japan Railways (JR) East’s Chuo-Sobu line out from the town center to the outer suburbs where I lived, I noticed that short, simple chime melodies sounded on each platform as the train was waiting for passengers to get on and off. I noticed that these melodies were different for each station (indeed, Miyama station, which disembarks to Tokyo Disneyland, plays the theme to “It’s A Small World After All“).”

Each small chime allows users (passengers) to “feel” when they were at the right stop or when they have gone too far and need to go back. He goes on to discuss ways of utilizing this methodology with website designs.

One important part of this concept, that wasn’t made explicit in the article, is the fact that the user will only start picking up ambient cues over a period of time. So, these ambient cues must not take the place of more explicit cues, rather they should add anther layer to enhance the overall user experience.

While the article was very heavy on the use of colour as ambient cues, I am excited to see what other types of cues people can think up. This one will be in the back of my head churning away for the next couple of days, I am sure of that. Great article, check it out.


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