What NYC apartment numbers and buzzers can teach us about website design

New York City apartments generally have a very simple numbering/naming convention: floor number followed by a letter.  Usually the letters are alphabetical, but occasionally for buildings with only a handful of units on each floor they’ll use a N,S,E,W convention or R,F (for rear, front).  But the bottom line is that 90% of the time you’ll end up with something like 1R, 22D, or 16E.

Woe is you (in fact, woe is me) if happenstance requires you to deviate from these expected norms.

My apartment has two levels (street and below ground) and shares an entrance foyer with an adjacent 4 story brownstone. Because of the split level and the way it’s physically situated, the apartment is a bit of an “odd man out.”  When I moved in, the sign on my door, the sticker on my mailbox, and the corresponding outside buzzer for my unit all simply said “Duplex”.  And that’s when the trouble began.

When I’d call for food delivery and was asked for my address, the word “Duplex” was met by confusion, frustration, and sometimes complete bewilderment by the order taker.  I’d say it slowly; I’d spell it; I’d even use it in a sentence. But this simply wasn’t a word that was familiar to many of them.  As a result, delivery people would show up and have to call me from outside because they didn’t know what buzzer to press.  I’d look at the order ticket and see things written like: “doop x”, “Apt X”, and “dipriks”.

Then Paul and I had a revelation.  We decided to undertake an apartment rebranding effort.  In fact, a co-branding campaign!  We didn’t want to completely lose “Duplex” since that’s how our mail came and how some delivery people knew us, but we recognized that we needed a conventional nomenclature for the majority of our deliveries.  “1-A” was our solution.  The co-branded name would be “1-A / Duplex”.  We put up new stickers on the door and by the outside buzzer and were confident our problems would be solved.

The good news?  The “1-A” was perfectly understood by order takers on the phone.  “Ah, 1-A as in ‘apple!'” they’d always say.  Yes!

But when the delivery people arrived, the buzzer for 1-A wasn’t where they’d expect.  They could see 1-R and 1-F at the top of the set of buzzers, but doggone it, no 1-A.  Forget that we had put a gigantic “1-A/Duplex” sticker on white tape just a few buzzers (about an inch) down.  Because the buzzer wasn’t in the exact spot where people expected to see it, it may as well have not been there at all.

So still, about 30% of the time, we’d receive a phone call from a frustrated delivery person who was outside staring at the buzzers and unable to find our button. (The other likely culprit is the fact that since the white tape with black lettering is so very different from the typography adjacent to the other buzzers, the mind simply rules this area out completely, thinking “this is too different to be relevant to the scan I’m trying to make.”)

Who would think this could be such a source of endless confusion?

Unfortunately we can’t just move the location of our buzzer since this is real world hardware and not just a web page.  But what we’ve started to do is say “1-A: it’s the BOTTOM BUZZER” to the order taker.  And that has worked pretty well.

How does all this relate to website design?  I’m sure you figured it out already:

1) Speak in familiar language that your audience understands.  Don’t make up words or expect them to adapt to your internal naming standards.  Switching from the unfamiliar ‘Duplex’ to the extremely familiar ‘1-A’ nomenclature solved about half of our problem.

2) If a button, text, or call to action is not almost exactly where someone expects it to logically be, you’re likely to have a significant amount of your audience just give up. I’m lucky in that my frustrated “audience” of delivery people are generally owed $20 or so for laundry or a pizza, so they clearly have an incentive to call me.  But for a random passive visitor to your site, if they face that level of frustration, more likely than not, poof – they are gone for good.

3) Be careful about designing one element in a series in a different way from its peers.  You may think you’re calling more attention to it, but you may be ruling it out completely for some people who consciously or subconsciously tend to exclude the one thing that’s not like the others.

4) If technical or design constraints absolutely require you to place something on your site in a non-optimal location, consider providing clues or navigation tips on the previous page and the page itself in order to help your audience find what they need.  Saying ‘Bottom buzzer’ to the order taker worked for us.  We could probably also have put an arrow to our buzzer on the building’s buzzer controls (although our neighbors probably wouldn’t be too thrilled with that).

But the most important lesson for me is that in addition to checking square footage, noise level, amount of sunlight and quality of the interior of my next apartment, I’ll be sure that it has one of the most important features of all: a single number followed by a letter.


2 responses to “What NYC apartment numbers and buzzers can teach us about website design

  1. It’s surprising how many designers still fail to grasp this concept. If your site layout is significantly different from what people have come to expect, you’re forcing them to learn your site rather than accomplish what they came there to go. It’s generally not a good idea to frustrate your prospective customers.

  2. @Ed: amen to that!

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