Monday 22 October 2018

Giving the wrong information
to convey the right message

1. Why choose the wrong solution?

At first glance it looks stupid, but behind this eye-catching title hides the truth: the ‘best’ solution is not always most effective. Or at least, the most obvious or most logical solution is not always the one that will work the best.

An example of this concept is the example of the floppy disk as the ‘save’ pictogram. This is a logical choice for people who actually used floppy disks to save data. But for a good proportion of current users, it doesn’t make sense because they’ve never used this technology. 


In this specific case, the pictogram has become so commonplace that it is its own reference. This leads to a kind of twisted logic, like in this video in which children see a floppy disk for the first time… and think it’s a 3D print-out of the save icon.

2. A practical case: my ear

To illustrate this idea, we’re going to look at a practical case: in my early 20s, I went deaf in one ear (my right ear). So I decided to get a tattoo to let people know. 

Deafness, other than the fact it will affect us all, is an invisible disability. This can cause problems: in my case, people forget which ear works. So that’s why I decided to get a tattoo so my friends and family would remember. 

As a good UX designer, I obviously chose to use a pictogram to convey this information. My first idea was to use logic, and to use the ‘Mute Mic’ pictogram (below). This is clearly the most logical choice, because the ear, like a mic, picks up sound.


When I told people my plan, I quickly realised that some people instead imagined a ‘mute speaker’ pictogram for my tattoo:


I was surprised, I hadn’t even considered this option: a speaker is an output device, whereas an ear is an audio input device.

As it wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, I did a small comparative test (A/B type testing) on my friends and family, to see if I was making the right decision, or a regrettable mistake. And it quickly appeared that, even though it was ‘wrong’, the speaker pictogram was better recognised and understood.

Here are the results:


3. But why?

Of course, I wondered why. Here’s part of the answer: 

 > The speaker pictogram is better known than the mic one. This makes it easier to recognise for people who see it.

> The speaker pictogram’s general shape is more specific than the mic’s: there’s less detail, less risk of ‘missing’ details if it’s seen in poor conditions (lack of light, hat or hair concealing part of the pictogram, etc.)

> A speaker is shaped more like an ear

> Deafness is of course connected to the concept of sound, and the association with sound is stronger for the speaker than for the mic. So this makes the association between the speaker and deafness easier.

4. Conclusion

In summary, for all the reasons we’ve just gone through, it’s sometimes necessary to make an illogical choice to be coherent with the way people think.

This principle can be summed up as follows:

What DOES work is more important than what SHOULD work.

So before setting off, test, check, be ready to realise that you perhaps are right but that’s not always enough… and above all, be ready to be wrong for a good cause!

Adrien Picard, UX Designer, SQLI Switzerland

  • Share
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Linkedin