Design Great Billboards

Matthew Magain

A billboard displaying the ambiguous phrase, Arrester Bed
We can learn a lot about designing usable web sites from the offline world.

For instance, when I was in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago visiting family, I took a drive around the Adelaide Hills. Cruising along the freeway at 120 kms/hr, I passed the sign in the picture on the right. The first thing that popped into my head was “What the heck does that mean?”

I’m not sure what it’s like in your part of the world, but when I was last living in Adelaide, South Australia, the term arrester bed definitely wasn’t common language.

(I was half expecting to see an intimidating king-size mattress in full police uniform step out from the bushes and order me to pull over.)

The second thing that popped into my head — and this is possibly an indication that I spend far too much time online — was this:

“Imagine if something similarly obscure was used to describe a tab on a web site. No-one would know what the text linked to!”

Steve Krug wrote about this very concept — that we should think of our users as driving by in a car, and provide them with navigation labels that are quick to digest. However it’s obvious that we shouldn’t use every billboard that we come across as inspiration.

The moral of this story is that, when deciding upon the words to use for your navigation items, it’s really important to use language that your audience knows and understands immediately, without them having to delve deep into the limits of their vocabulary and figure it out. Exactly what that language is depends on your site and your audience — if your site is for teens, then it may be perfectly acceptable to call the link for your Contact Us page “Write Us, Yo”. For most sites, however, you’re better off sticking with the much safer Contact or Contact Us.

PS. I found out later that an arrester bed is in fact an emergency ramp, available for drivers of vehicles (usually trucks) whose brakes have failed. The ramp provides a safer way of coming to a stop than the barrier gate or a tree. It may be an American term; personally, I’d have preferred to see it called “Emergency Safety Ramp”. In the heat of the moment, that’s going to require less brain power on the driver’s behalf, thus potentially saving more lives.

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  • Ronnie

    personally, I’d have preferred to see it called “Emergency Safety Ramp”

    That’s coz you are an intelligent guy.
    Very nice post

  • Dave

    “it’s really important to use language that your audience knows and understands immediately” – Perhaps this is what they were doing. After all, as a non-truck driver you aren’t part of their target audience – I’d guess that everyone who needs to use it knows what it is :)
    It’ll take most of us longer to parse “web appearance rule” than “CSS”, even though the former is more descriptive and (probably) more intelligible for other people.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ mattymcg

    You make a good point, Dave. I guess I was getting at the fact that anyone whose brakes failed might find that ramp rather useful. Why shut out potential “customers”? :-)

  • Brian Artka

    hmm… being from the states I have never heard of these two words before, I have no clue where that comes from. lol. Good post Matt.

  • wwb_99

    Valid point overall. I would argue, however, that truckers understand what “arrester beds” are and that is your target audience. So it is much more like your, “Rite us, y0″ example than one would think . . .

  • Atomicron

    Although not relevant to the point of the post, an Arrester Bed is know as a Runaway Lane in BC, Canada.

  • http://www.randomlinkage.net/ RagManX

    I’ve never seen that term before living in Tennessee. When I’ve seen those ramps, they were always labeled “Runaway truck ramp” across two lines, white text on a green sign, with a big arrow pointing toward the ramp.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    Valid point overall. I would argue, however, that truckers understand what “arrester beds” are and that is your target audience.

    Not necessarily. They’re not called arrester beds in other Australian states and a lot of truck drivers cross state boundaries. Fair enough, if you do a lot of interstate driving, you’ll probably find out what it means, but there’s probably going to be truck drivers who are in the same position as Matt, driving in SA for the first time, and not knowing what it means.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    Perhaps this is what they were doing. After all, as a non-truck driver you aren’t part of their target audience – I’d guess that everyone who needs to use it knows what it is :)

    That’s cool if the sign was intelligent enough to black itself out for every non-truck passing it. The problem is 99.9% of the users reading that sign, not only don’t need the information — they are actually likely at least somewhat confused and distracted by what the h*** an ‘arrester bed’ is, and whether they should know.

    This is a case where the choice of phrasing is sucking attention and concentration away from the task of driving — so in some way making the road slightly less safe — and returning no benefit whatsoever.

    Something as simple as ‘Emergency Braking Zone’ would be clear to all drivers.

  • Spencer Lavery

    This sign breaks the fundamental rule of information sign design by relying entirely on language. Almost all caution/emergency-related signs should communicate with an illustration/icon for those that either a) don’t understand the term or b) don’t speak the language.

    Tests have shown that not only are illustrations more universally understandable, they’re also quicker to understand in most cases.

    The Brits have road signs down to a tee for the most part.

    Excellent comparison Matthew.

  • http://pthub.co.uk pthub

    makes sense, interesting post