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The Problem with Metadata

Here’s a photo I took this afternoon on my way back from the bloggers’ blunch:

Hess gas station, Allston, Massachusetts

[Click here to see a larger version of the photo.]

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26 Responses to “The Problem with Metadata”

  1. I don’t see anything wrong here.

  2. The problem is that the label, “Press start button” has been pressed enough times to wear a hole in it, instead of the real start button.

  3. I’ve posted a larger version of the photo here.

  4. <sigh> That’s the problem with making something idiot-proof; there’s always a better class of idiot waiting to come along.

    (mutters to self): The user is always right, the user is always right, the user is always right….

  5. This reminds me of the time I saw a ATM (cash dispensing) machine at a midwestern university when they were a new oddity there. There were verbose instructions all over the machine in various languages to facilitate its use by the varied campus population. They even went so far to include instructions in braille which they then covered in clear plexiglass to keep it from getting worn out from all that touching!

  6. ATM machine????

    Automated Teller Machine machine…

    How very very sad of you. Way to ruin a decent story.

  7. It took me a second.

    …no wait, I’m still in stitches…

    I guess no matter how many affordances you slap on a thing it’s still gonna be vorhanden to some folks.

  8. The REAL problem is in the “meta data” or use of the word “button” – a concept that really doesn’t apply (literally) for the yellow rectangle labeled “START”.

  9. On second thought, I’d love to see standards. There isn’t an ATM keypad that doesn’t have some stupid written words taped to it because each interface (layout, words, buttons) is different (and TERRIBLY designed!) Good Standards are Better!

  10. on the positive side, i did finally see a multilingual ATM machine-machine that instead of adding an extra step for choosing your preferred language instead asked the user to enter their PIN number-number and then press the adjacent button, in each of the (three, I think it was—English, Spanish, and Chinese, this being San Francisco, Potrero Hill) languages.

    The user reads the instruction in her preferred language (the others naturally recede into the background, except perhaps for the perfectly bi- or trilingual?) and presses the appropriate button, thus choosing a language for the rest of the transaction in the same step.

  11. This isn’t metadata. This is just plain old bad design, of the sort Donald Norman has done a fine job explaining in his series of books. Beyond being yet another expert saying “let’s trash metadata” how is this relevant?

  12. Trash metadata? I live for metadata.

    Yes, it is extraordinarily bad design. (I sent it to Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen right before posting it, btw.)

    It’s also damn funny.

  13. I’ve seen several Verifone machines where the LED display tells you press “OK” after you’ve entered your PIN, only there isn’t an “OK” button, there’s only an “Enter” button. Typically, there’s a note at the bottom of the keypad explaining that “Enter” = “OK”.

    I wonder if that sort of misdirection wasn’t the reason for the note on this gas pump.

  14. Bill Walle – There isn’t an ATM keypad that doesn’t have some stupid written words taped to it because each interface (layout, words, buttons) is different (and TERRIBLY designed!)

    Richard Bennett machines where the LED display tells you press “OK” after you’ve entered your PIN, only there isn’t an “OK” button, there’s only an “Enter” button. Typically, there’s a note at the bottom of the keypad explaining that “Enter” = “OK”.


    I have a food-stamp card, and the markets all have differnt ways of handling them – none goos.

    The display asks if you are using a food stamp or not, but doesn’t say what to push.

    Or there really are buttons, labelled, for credit/debit/foodstamp/other – except the labels are in pencil applied two years ago and are useless anyway because the system has changed to foodstamp/other.

    Once it knows you are usibg a food stamp card you are set, right? Nope: in this state the card is also used like a sort of debit card to a cash account from some other programs. So you are asked “Cash or foodstamp”, and again have to guess what button to push.

    Once you get by that, and the “OK” thing, most then put up the total and ask you to push “OK”…

    And in at least one store, after all that, and with the info that I am using a foodstamp card with no cash balance, the thing asks if I want to add more money and get cash back! Grrr!!!

    Not sure what all this has to do with metadata, just lousy system design. Oh, and add the store that does all but the cash-back thing on a little hand-held widget at the end of a twelve foot coiled cord because the full-sized unit is bolted in place facing the cashier – who swipes your card for you (you’re too dumb) and then tries to keep from laughing while you try to find that silly handset (it’s on the floor, on HER side of the counter) and then takes you through the button-picking in broken English (“No, ees nod dat one, is broke, ees now the hysterics on the below”) – and have to start over because you pushed the “YES” button (yep, there is a “YES” button – but not a “NO” button) for “OK” instead of the “ENTER” and the system crashed. Or vice-versa, depending on where you are in the script apparently handled by a different company in a different country/language for each line. Or maybe the Japanese 8-year-old translating into English from the original German as written in New Zealand by a Hindu immigrant, like some of the computer tech manuals I’ve had to deal with.

  15. The real problem with this fuel pump (like many) is that the buttons don’t really “look” like buttons. They are these dopey membranes instead of physical things that go in when you push them. Yes, the membrane may be more reliable, more resistant to weather, but they are poorly suited to human interaction. Give me a button that goes in a fraction of an inch and provides a touch-perceptible “click”. Then the user would know what is a button and what is merely a display or an item of instructions or a decoration.

  16. This is the kind of problem that reminds me of old ATMs.

    With the older ones you put your card in, punch in your pin, do your transaction and then you get your money and spits out your card. Modern ones, give your card back first, then the very last thing you get your money.

    The very subtle difference is crucial with how we interact with ATMs. Basically, the main goal for most people when visiting an ATM is to get money out of it. So in a rush, and who isn’t now-a-days, many users would get their money and subconsciously deciding that they have reached their goal, and walk away leaving their ATM card behind.

    My brother lost 3 cards at one of the old ATM machines that was located near us.

    Clearly the problem here is similar to the ATM problem. Here you have to press start to pump your gas. The gas station attendant probably got tired of customers asking how to work the pump, that he put the note on it. It’s a little larger, the word “PRESS” gives it a declarative tone, and obviously draws better attention than the start button itself. Thus, you get a worn out note. :)

    It’s not stupidity at work, it’s inattentiveness. What’s really the problem here and it’s not so much that the start button doesn’t look like a real button (might help tho) but that it’s an extra, unnecessary step. There are now gas pump that “start” the moment you slip your credit card in or when you select the type of gas you want.

    The start button is a useless culprit. We customers just want to pump gas. It’s not like we’re trying to synchronize a orchestra.

    Neat picture!

  17. People who say “ATM machine” probably got low
    scores on their SAT tests.

  18. Oh you caught that one? Well I guess that makes you a genius.

  19. Ha! This is a classic case of confusing the map with the territory.

    BTW, what happens when you press start? Is that something you do first, or after you’ve entered your card info? I can’t recall having seen a start button in one of these layouts.

  20. The real problem with this picture isn’t the meta-data, it’s the existence of a “Start” button in the first place. The gas pump needs some way for people to indicate that they wish to begin pumping.

    historically, that function was assumed by the cradle for the nozzle itself. You removed the nozzle from the cradle, lifted the cradle, then began to pump. These days, there’s the extra step of inserting a credit card in the gas pump to ensure that you’re not just going to drive off without payment.

    If that you’re inserting your credit card, why is “Start” necessary? Or if it is necessary, why has the old physical method been changed?

  21. Great photo. If you add “do not press HERE” the result would probably even be worse.

    However, why are U.S. gas stations so complicated anyway? Here you lift the nozzle, put it in the tank and press it. If it is an ATM station you have to insert the card first and put in your PIN if it’s a bank card and not a credit card. But thatÄs it.

    In the U.S. instead you have to

    a) remove the nozzle and put it in the tank (logical)
    b) in addition lift the nozzle holder on the pump (I totally failed with that one when I tried to use gas pumps in the U.S. at first – you won’t find that anywhere in Europe but on some pumps nothing and noone tells you about it – you are totally stuck!)
    c) insert your card
    d) press a lot of buttons in changing orders depending on the machine

    Sometimes d) has to be done before c) or b), sometimes before and after! Sometimes the pump still shuts down, so you have to go in and ask them to reset it on the control. As it worked the second time it could not have been me doing something wrong :-)

    Filling up the gas is worse then buying a local train or subway ticket here, and tourists already fail with that all the time if they are in another town but their own.

    No wonder self service is not so popular in the U.S. If someone like me is having difficulties, what about grandma?

  22. I used to like ATMs that were sort of lo-tech,
    with just a dozen or so buttons. Now my bank
    installed a new generation with touch screens
    that look more hi-tech but are a lot harder
    to use. The worst thing is that the image is
    behind the screen and if you look at the screen
    from an angle you can never quite see where you
    have to put your finger to press on a given
    option. The screens seem to be at an angle
    that would be about right for a 5′ person and
    I’m 6′ so I miss the buttons pretty often.

    The next “advance” in GUI technology that I hope
    will not occur for a long time is speaking
    commands to your PC. I bet that will be another
    quantum leap more difficult to use than typing or

  23. January 10, 2003 04:38 PM

  24. January 10, 2003 04:38 PM

  25. January 10, 2003 04:38 PM

    The problem with Metadata… very funny! (Thanks Dave)…

  26. A great photo

    David Weinberger: The Problem with Metadata ( via Dave Winer )

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