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The Wiki Man

The service station problem: it's becoming impossible to correct a mistake

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

My first award for intelligent design this week goes to Dublin airport for displaying a sign which reads ‘Lounges. Turn back. No lounges beyond this point.’

It may seem like a trivial thing, but it takes a rare intelligence to think in this way. It’s one thing to put up a sign that says ‘Lounges, this way’. But it takes nous to think ‘yes, well and good, but what happens if people see the first sign but miss the second one?’ In all likelihood, they would end up walking 500 yards in the wrong direction, as I nearly did.

Signage and wayfinding are mostly designed for people who never make mistakes. Should you misread your gate number at an airport, and end up at gate 92 instead of gate 29, you are doomed. Once you turn towards the sign for ‘Gates 80-95’ all information about flights from gates 1 to 79 disappears from the screens. By the time you have discovered your mistake, it is impossible to rectify it.


In the same way, most online decision paths are created using what I call the ‘motorway service station decision tree’ — where you are forced to undergo a rapid and irreversible elimination of options. Anyone who uses motorway services will be familiar with this: you’re tooling down a motorway at 75mph and decide to stop for a light salad (or if your spouse isn’t with you, a KFC Zinger Tower Meal); once off the slip road you face a barrage of signs — Food Court/Fuel/Lorries/Caravans/Coaches/Travelodge/Costa Drive-Thru, each pointing to a different fork. If your attention briefly wavers and you miss one of these bifurcations, you will find yourself hopelessly trapped in the lorry park with no means of return. This is probably what happened to Lord Lucan.

No one designing a layout for a motorway service station builds in fallback routes or opportunities for correction — and the same malaise often afflicts people building online experiences.

In reality, booking a holiday or a flight, or buying a house, is an iterative process. We refine our preferences by seeing what is available. Yet all effort in e-commerce seems to be directed to those occasions where nothing ever goes wrong. Online retail is wonderful when it works, but once a transaction fails — a package is late or goes astray, say — you enter a world of pain, hunting down phone numbers deliberately hidden in obscure reaches of the website. This is a false economy on the part of online retailers: the biggest obstacle to the growth of e-commerce is not how good it is when things go well, it’s how bad it is when they don’t.

Fortunately Argos is relatively good at this kind of thing. Because my second design award of the week goes to its Trespass Chair with Swivel Side Table 884/3472 (£39.99). Forget driverless cars and Elon Musk’s latest rocketry: for writers, this is a much more important innovation. Because it is the first piece of portable furniture which enables you to use a laptop anywhere, from the garden to the beach.

I owe you this tip as an act of contrition. For decades the advertising industry made millions selling laptop computers by showing happy people sitting beside a lake with a computer on their knees. This was a lie. Unless you have the forearm to upper body ratio of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, it is impossible to use a laptop for more than six minutes on your lap. This camping chair has finally solved this problem. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. Sutherland’s Law states that furniture design lags technology by about two decades.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.


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