The mysterious Interchange Level

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Arriving at the London Underground subway station deep below King's Cross railway station, the main London terminal for trains to Edinburgh using the East Coast main line. I'm lugging a heavy wheeled bag, and there are flights of ordinary stairs as well as escalators, so I take the passenger elevator upward. Several of us crowd into it with our suitcases. The doors automatically close, and the elevator starts automatically without any button-pressing, having only one direction in which it can travel. As the faint sensation of upward movement ceases, an electronically generated voice intones: "Interchange Level. Doors opening. We all stare at each other, mystified, seeking reassurance in each other's eyes, and look out as the doors open to see if there are any clues out there. What the hell is the "interchange level"?

I'm not asking for you to tell me (please don't). I'm pointing out that this is classic nerdview. If you haven't encountered the term before (it is my own), nerdview is the phenomenon of taking the perspective of an insider, designer, or engineer (what the French call déformation professionelle and the Dutch call beroepsdeformatie) when attempting to communicate with an end user or customer who couldn't possibly have that perspective.

Nerdview can be quite subtle. "Any permitted" says a baffling annotation on the return halves of some UK rail tickets. It apparently means "Be careful, because although unrestricted within certain parameters, this ticket is only valid at certain times and on certain routes." If you buy an off-peak round-trip ticket between Edinburgh and Oxford, and get to Oxford down the East Coast via Newcastle and then across country via Birmingham, your return half may not be valid for a trip northward that starts before 9:30 a.m., or one that goes back from Birmingham up the West Coast via Manchester, Carlisle, and Glasgow. The claim that the ticket can be used on "any permitted" service would be completely clear to a specialist working on route pricing or timetable planning within the railway industry, but it is almost completely useless from the perspective of a naive traveler changing at Birmingham and trying to get to Edinburgh. And to some extent the relevant oversight authority, the Office of Rail and Road, seems to have begun to take note of the problem.

"MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY" says the label on a recycling receptacle; "COMMINGLED REFUSE says the sign on a trash bin. These, though still quite subtle, are definitely nerdview under my definition. For us ordinary people throwing things away, nothing is not mixed or commingled, nor needs to be. We just have a piece of cardboard or a styrofoam cup. The mixed or commingled character of the contents of a bin is what confronts the guys at the refuse and recycling sorting center later on.

"USE BOTH LANES" says a road sign; but of course no individual driver can obey this. It takes the perspective of the road system designer, a perspective that an individual driver cannot be expected to have. "BOTH LANES OK FOR EXIT" would not be subject to the same criticism. ("USE ALL DOORS WHEN BOARDING THE TRAIN," a sign in the London Underground that is similarly impossible to obey, is a tougher nut to crack; it is very hard to see what it intends to impart to an individual traveler. Maybe "If a crowd of people are all trying to get in via one door, try moving down to a different and less crowded door" is what they meant? But did they really need to say that? Isn't the sign really just an exasperated indication of the designers' frustration on seeing a crowd of people all trying to get onto the train via the door that's closest to the escalator that brought them down to the platform?)

"RESTROOM CLOSES 15 MINUTES BEFORE CLOSING" says a sign in some large institution like a department store or mall. But that's the perspective of the people planning the sequence of shutdown operations; the ordinary customer caught short, but not wanting to get locked in, needs explicit guidance on whether there is time to enter the restroom and answer nature's call, which means the sign has also got to say when closing time comes.

"OUT OF FAN-FOLD TICKETS" says the screen on a machine that was supposed to issue a ticket permitting a hapless motorist to park in the airport parking structure — but of course the motorist has no need to know that the tickets (when available) are stored inside the machine in a continuous strip folded kind of like a Chinese folding fan (sort of like "|\/\/\/\/\/\/\|"): the motorist needs to know what the hell to do about parking if he can't get a ticket; only the technical operative, who will later be taking the back off the machine and loading more tickets, needs to know to load fan-fold rather than straight roller ticket stock.

Anyway, to return to us mystified travelers at King's Cross, there we were at the "Interchange Level". We all peered out of the elevator at the uncommunicative blank tiled walls, and then looked back at each other questioningly. Was the interchange level the highest level the elevator reached? What we really wanted to know was whether this was where to get out in order to wheel our cases out into the street or across to the departure area of the King's Cross station where the surface trains left for York and Durham and Edinburgh.

We had no idea it had been designated "the interchange level" at some meeting of engineers and architects and elevator manufacturers years or decades ago, on the grounds that at the transportation systems level it permitted interchange between the Underground and the surface rail system. And we simply had to guess whether we should get out or perhaps continue on up. They could have programmed the voice to say "Street level" (which at least would have told us there was no point in hoping for any further upward travel), or even, "Get out here for King's Cross main line station."

The relevant normative principle is so simple: When issuing a message for the guidance of the public, phrase it to make sense from their perspective, and avoid language that presumes an insider or system-design perspective that they cannot possibly have.

You understand that intuitively, and hardly needed me to point it out. So how can it be so hard for designers of systems and makers of appliances to grasp? What is wrong with them?


  1. Bastian said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    Nerdview – what a beautiful term. I've been looking for a while for a term like that to describe what I consider the basic problem of Microsoft products (i.e. the unbearable control panel) ever since. But meaybe this leads to far OT…

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    In Italian you can also say deformazione professionale, just like in French and Dutch. In all cases (as far as I know) it's a play on formazione professionale (or formation professionnelle or beroepsformatie), meaning 'professional education'. English doesn't use formation in this sense, so professional deformation flops as a play on words. And anyway, even though its scope is narrower, nerdview is a punchier term.

    [Notice that I'm not equating (dé)formation professionelle with nerdview. Nerdview is instantiated when some person or system attempts to communicate with the general public in a way that fails precisely because of their (dé)formation professionelle. It's not about merely having an insider's professional jargon; we all do. It's about failing to communicate with the ordinary public by not realizing that you are using language in a way that is totally obscure to most people because of your insider's perspective. —GKP]

  3. Jan said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    My wife has at various times had to listen to me speak to others in "amateur radio" or "speech pathology" (totally nerdview conversations) which, even though she has a PhD in Romance Languages, made no sense whatever to her. "Nerdview" captures this in-speak aspect beautifully.

  4. Mark Etherton said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    When I was in the Foreign Office we used to talk of ‘postitis’, a particular form of déformation professionelle which led one to see all the problems of international relations from the particular prism of the country or mission to which one was posted.

  5. John Roth said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

    This is captured by the injunction: "never let a programmer design the user interface." That's why there are user interface specialists.

    [Clearly there aren't anywhere near enough of them. —GKP]

  6. Ken Novak said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    To my mind, the "all doors" and "all lanes" examples are different from the others, in that they do not confuse. I guess that they were chosen for brevity, although "any door" and "any lane" would be both more precise and physically possible. They may, however, rankle Usage Tories (and I count myself among That Number). Isn't that another sort of nerdview?

  7. Fernando Colina said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

    I'm dating myself, but I remember the old MS DOS message on the early IBM PCs: "GENERAL FAILURE READING C DRIVE", after which wags would ask, "Who's General Failure and why is he reading my C drive?"

  8. Tim Morris said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    It's Platform 9 3/4 you really have to worry about.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    The "both lanes" and "all doors" example are speaking to everyone at once, the perspective of the signmakers, instead of to each person individually, the perspective (most likely) of a person reading the sign.

  10. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    I hate nerdview. I really do.

    But in come cases complaining about nerdview is nerdview in its own right. (That's what makes it So Much Fun, of course. True.)

    Quite a few people may end up having to communicate things to the public. Far, far fewer people are good at it. Those who are good at it become e.g. university teachers. Those who aren't so good are lift engineers or restroom managers.

    If the message was indeed "electronically generated", then it was produced using a Text-to-Speech system. The person in charge of the installation of the lift at the station entered the text into the system. If there was an instruction that they were following, it probably said something along the lines of "enter the name of the destination". What was that name in this case? A map of some sort called it "Interchange level". End of story. (And, of course, the technician was not following a full written instruction; they were relying on their memory or a condensed checklist.)

    The "designer of the system" was nowhere near the thing at that point.

    Many examples of nerdview (and other nerdview-like phenomena) stem from this. Signage is produced locally at the lowest possible level in the hierarchy, by people who spend most of their time communicating with other people at the same level in the same hierarchy. Then, in a serious organization, it may be approved by people only slightly higher in the hierarchy. But even those aren't expert at adopting an "outsider" POV.

    And then, the public just carry on with their lives, and everything just works ;)

    It only becomes slightly puzzling with those big organizations that you would expect to know better. The fact that they still get it wrong from time to time would lead me to believe that the principle of avoiding nerdview is not that intuitive after all.

  11. Jamie said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

    Nerdview can also affect marketing people (who should know better). I once bought a printer that came with a CD labelled "Solutions Disk".

    I had no idea what that meant until I remembered the marketing cliche, "people don't want products, they want solutions"; i.e. they want something that will solve a problem. Some (not too bright) marketing people have taken this literally and, as a result, massively overuse the word "solution".

    But people don't buy "personal transportation solutions", they buy cars.

  12. Jeff W said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    As a usability (or user experience) professional, I encounter that all the time.

    So how can it be so hard for designers of systems and makers of appliances to grasp? What is wrong with them?

    My impression is that designers of systems do grasp it once it is pointed out to them; they’re more or less unaware that they are taking an insider perspective. To them, something like the “interchange level” is simply what that thing is called. They are not ignoring that that term might not be meaningful to outsiders; rather, they are completely unaware that it might not be.

  13. Richard Brown said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

    I have across this – the killed man – phrase on teletext a few times. It sounds odd but I do not know why. – murdered – works but – killed – doesn't.

  14. Pat Barrett said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

    Tim Morris anticipated me on the Harry Potter reference but this whole designer perspective thing made me recall an incident in a hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were going in an elevator and it stopped at a floor where the door opened despite it not being our floor. It opened onto a small space with one window ….one window but nothing else, no door. A brave soul with us, a construction worker and teacher from Tucson, stepped out and quickly stepped back in as the doors closed automatically. "No elevator control buttons in the room," was his wide-eyed comment. No way to open the doors from inside the elevator either. I could image a very unlucky person trapped in there with no one knowing he had stepped into this void (9 3/4?), frantically signaling from the 23rd floor window…. into the night.

  15. Norman Smith said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 7:58 pm

    My favourite example of a nerdview phrase comes from when I was a programmer on IBM mainframes (some time ago). I would get this error message at times: "DCB EROPT=ABE and/or no SYNAD EXIT specified." This, apparently, made sense to the person who composed it initially.

    I finally realized that the error message was a signal, like an air raid siren or a flashing light, but it was not a sentence even though it appeared to be made up of words.

  16. Thomas Lumley said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    @Norman Smith,

    I think that's compression rather than nerdview — ie, not that the person writing the message thought it was self-explanatory, but that they thought you would have the secret decoder ring.

    According to the Google, it translates as "there was an error, and you either didn't provide a more helpful error-handling routine or you told me not to use it".

  17. empty said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    Until sometime last year there was an excellent example of nerdview along Route 24 in Massachusetts. It warned drivers about size and weight limits for trucks crossing the Berkley-Dighton Bridge. You passed the sign just before Route 24 crossed the Assonet River. To reach the Berkley-Dighton Bridge, you would have had to continue a couple of miles, take an exit, and travel a few more miles on another road to cross another river; but there was no way to know this. I imagine that from time to time a truck driver would pull over, afraid to cross the Assonet, and not know what to do. I like to think that in the end one such lost soul pointed out the confusion and the nerds saw the light.

  18. Lee said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

    Nerdview is my all-time favorite topic on Language Log because there is something slippery about it.

    At first I agreed with the "use both lanes" and "use all doors" examples, but now Ellen K.'s comment seems right to me. The imperative is addressed to us as a group and can only be achieved as a group. There isn't any succinct imperative that could be addressed to us as individuals that would bring about the same result ("use either lane" and "use any door" don't do the jobs).

    All collective action seems stupid and impossible when trying to board a crowded train, and I agree that there is a whiff of some engineer's exasperation in those "use all doors" signs. Maybe it's the context that is messing with our intuition, then. If a theater catches fire and we crowd around the nearest emergency exit, the manager might save lives by shouting, "Use both emergency doors!" Part of what he is doing is making salient our responsibility to coordinate as a group and come up with a solution that helps the most people. It would not be adequate to the occasion for him to shout, "Use either emergency door!"

  19. D.O. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 11:02 pm

    Well, if the announcer on the elevator said "level 3", would it be clearer. If you don't know what level 3 is for, you could be just as much confused.

  20. postageincluded said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 11:20 pm

    I seem to think that I have been puzzled by the "Interchange Level" at Kings Cross myself, but quite a while ago so, however it originated, its usage is now hallowed and though it's perhaps not quite as sacred as "Mind the Gap" (which has alarmed many an elderly American tourist over the years) there's no doubt it's here to stay. If they changed it to "Street Level" Londoners wouldn't know where to get off.

    Nerdspeak may have largely replaced Civil Service Mandarin, but inscrutable public notices are as accepted a part of English life as tea and biscuits, whacky ceremonial and disparaging foreigners. From the American/Scottish perspective, things could be done better, no doubt ,Prof Pullum, but I fear you rail in vain.

  21. Chris C. said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

    @John Roth — The lead programmer in my group is an extremely intelligent, productive coder, but for the love of God I wish he'd accept critique about his GUI design. "Sucks" doesn't do it justice.

  22. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:30 am

    Some nerdview technical terms migrate to more common parlance. When I first heard SKU pronounced as a word, I didn't know what it was. (It stands for stock keeping unit — each product has one.) I am sure I learned the term from hearing retail sales staff use it.

    Insider nerdview terms were used by salespeople to intimidate customers when I was growing up, back when urban multistory department stores still sometimes had elevator operators and tearooms. On a visit to the big city, I would ask the saleswoman standing amidst racks of blouses about the brand of blouse I was seeking, and she would look down her nose at me to tell me that this was "better blouses" and that "budget blouses" were in the basement or near the back door — but the store directory wouldn't say "better blouses," it would say something like "Ladies Separates." The cheaper blouses would be in "Casual Wear" or some other downmarket abyss. Shoppers had to know the code to find the quality and price point they wanted.

  23. Graeme said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:31 am

    Since there's a few of us academics on this blog… Most pre-printed exam booklets are festooned with instructions written by uni bureaucrats, but often nerdviewishly. As if unaware that the reader will be a human, let alone a student in a panic.

  24. AndrewD said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 1:47 am

    i do not know how many Language Log readers are also readers of New Scientist, particulaly "Last Word" but "Use both lanes" or "use all doors" are regular items. There is a suggestion that they were written by physicists and it is assumed that cars or passangers have quantum characteristics and can indeed use two or more routes at once.

  25. Jon said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 2:39 am

    In our local supermarket, a sign appeared next to several items, 'BOGOF'. It was meaningless to most shoppers, but no doubt common usage among staff, meaning 'buy one, get one free'. The signs were soon replaced with ones in English. I wondered whether younger staff had been having a joke, since 'bog off' is used by some people, with similar force to 'piss off'.

  26. unekdoud said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 3:13 am

    "Nerd" seems to be a big portion of nerdview: the least common situations generate the most far-fetched requests and notices.

    In the case of computer jargon in error messages, this is a hard one to fix. Explaining the jargon alienates the user, but removing the jargon makes it harder for errors to be fixed.

    Knowing what the message says rarely helps the user, since they were written with information helpful for the developer. By design, these signs are for nerds, and the best that can be done is to attach a larger sign next to it saying "Everything's fine, it's not your fault, please don't worry, your computer's not going to burn down." (And the larger you make that sign, the more alarming it will look.) Several programs hide the error details and display just an error code or generic error message by default. The same pieces of software rarely provide specific troubleshooting instructions.

    But usability testing does make a difference. For example after decades of user feedback, Microsoft products don't often talk about "illegal operations" or program execution anymore. I'd say this isn't so much about nerdview as it is about nerd blindness, ignoring common interpretations of words when using them.

  27. languagehat said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    Those who are good at it become e.g. university teachers.

    Is this a joke, or were you just very, very lucky in your university experience? (Or are you perhaps a university teacher yourself?)

  28. Rodger C said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    I once lost forever a chunk of a large Word file I was building up bit by bit from copied emails, when something happened and I was asked whether I wanted to save the [wha??] version or the [wha???] version. I guessed wrong and saved an outdated cache copy.

  29. Rodger C said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    (In the first place, why would I even want to do that?)

  30. GH said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    Contrary to Prof. Pullum's claim that people "understand this intuitively", I would argue that "nerdview" is a universal human tendency that people tend to be blind to. (University teachers are certainly not immune!) It's hard to see things from other people's point of view, or to identify which of all the things that seem obvious to us are not obvious to outsiders. It's a truism in user-centered research that those who are most expert in a system are often the least able to explain it to a layperson. In another context we call it hindsight bias: It seems so obvious after the fact that we can't conceive how anyone could have failed to see it at the time.

    Or, to take another example: in a series of studies that were widely reported late last year, Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg found that liberals have difficulty identifying arguments that a conservative would find persuasive, and vice versa.


    Outside of a few that have to do with being given invalid input and certain other anticipated but unavoidable problems (loss of internet connection, low battery, etc.), error messages are rarely written for users, because providing useful instructions would require the developers to have anticipated the error and how to resolve it, and in that case they could usually simply have ensured that it did not happen in the first place.

  31. David said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

    There is a programming story (possibly apocryphal) about a large accounting package whose documentation had to be rewritten when someone found out that "default", meaning to programmers "what happens when you don't choose one of these options", means something much worse to accountants.

  32. Lars said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    The Stockholm metro/subway/underground circumvents the 'all doors' issue by actually telling people what to do: proceed to the middle of the platform before boarding. (Of course the chaos would be just as bad if everybody did that, but they don't. It still takes 2-3 times as long for the crowd at the ends of the train to board as the ones in the middle).

  33. Jeff W said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    Contrary to Prof. Pullum's claim that people "understand this intuitively", I would argue that "nerdview" is a universal human tendency that people tend to be blind to.…It's hard to see things from other people's point of view, or to identify which of all the things that seem obvious to us are not obvious to outsiders.

    Well, I agree with Pullum’s claim that people get intuitively the proposition that one should speak from the listener’s perspective and not use language that listener could not possibly understand but, as this comment says, people can’t easily apply the proposition or, really, even realize that they are not doing that. It’s similar to describing your own culture to someone outside it—you’re largely unaware of the assumptions that you have that the other person might not share.


    …Ellen K.'s comment seems right to me. The imperative is addressed to us as a group and can only be achieved as a group.

    Also, we wouldn’t imagine that the imperative is addressed to each of us personally. (In that sense the speaker is taking the listener’s perspective that the speaker is not directing his comments at that person per se.)

    It seems (to me, anyway) like, also, in the case of doors or exits which are all functionally equal, “both” or “all” is a little easier to “process” because it refers to the full array of choices, rather than each within the full array of choices. You’re not really faced with the question of “Which one should I choose?” as much as “Does it matter which one I choose?”—you don’t have to think about which one to pick if “both” or “all” the choices are OK.

  34. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

    Several salient points have been brought up already but I want to pull them together briefly.

    “The designer should understand my layperson perspective” is just another form of “the user should understand my expert’s perspective”.

    It is hard to design objects to communicate to their users effectively. It is never clear how much of the designer’s perspective is shared or easily discovered by others, and how much of it is insider’s perspective.

    There is a whole field, usability, which trades in this problem, and the problem goes far beyond merely the phrasing of linguistic messages. One of the central tenets of usability analysis is to test designs by confronting them with actual users – which in practice always yields surprises and insights the designer(s) never could predict.

    So the answer to the question of what is wrong with designers is, nothing at all. It is completely expected and entirely predictable that untested designs will fail to help the user.

    What is wrong is that usability analysis is practiced far too rarely.

  35. languagehat said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    “The designer should understand my layperson perspective” is just another form of “the user should understand my expert’s perspective”.

    That's absurd, and reminiscent of the classic "he hit me in the fist with his eye." It is not the user's business to understand the expert’s perspective, and the user has every right to expect that instructions will be given in an understandable format. It is the business of whoever provides the user with the product to ensure the instructions are comprehensible; whether that's done by the expert or a "usability analyst" (God save the mark) is a matter to be dealt with by the company selling the product or service, and the user should no more have to deal with or think about it than about who designed the wrapping.

  36. Bill Burns said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:16 pm

    On London Underground escalators: "DOGS MUST BE CARRIED"

  37. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:22 pm


    Those who are good at it become e.g. university teachers.

    Is this a joke, or were you just very, very lucky in your university experience? (Or are you perhaps a university teacher yourself?)

    Well, technically it wasn't a joke; but yes I was bitching a bit. However, note the "e.g.". On average, I would submit, teachers are in fact better at communicating than restroom managers.

    Some teachers are certainly more likely to ponder the question of whether public messages are phrased "for the user".

    My uni experience was expectably varied. It did include good communicators.

    Yes, I am a teacher myself but that wasn't the motivation for my remark.

  38. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

    On London Underground escalators: "DOGS MUST BE CARRIED"

    With the intended intonation, i.e. a fall-rise on dogs and a fall on carried, this is perfectly cromulent. The uncharitable reading comes from a markedly marked intonation (fall on dogs).

  39. maidhc said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    What about the reverse case when an insider technical term is for some reason adopted by the general public to mean something else entirely? For example "glitch", which has a precise technical meaning–a very short voltage spike usually caused by a race condition in digital logic–has been adopted to mean any generic sort of problem, for which we already have a number of other terms. Or "parameter".

  40. Jeff W said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:49 pm


    It is not the user's business to understand the expert’s perspective, and the user has every right to expect that instructions will be given in an understandable format.

    I think Aristotle Pagaltzis was addressing a different point—that it is easy or intuitive for experts to attend to addressing the user’s perspective and get what the user might fail to understand and that, given that, if they fail to do so, then there is something “wrong with them,” in the terms of the OP.

    I have to say, as a usability professional who has run hundreds of usability tests, I agree entirely with Aristotle Pagaltzis’s observation that the tests always yield surprises and insights that the designer(s)—or even the usability professional—never could predict. I have never run a test that did not yield at least one finding that was not at all what we had speculated about beforehand. It’s actually pretty astonishing. And, quite often, we find we are making some assumptions, not just in language but in how design works, that are not shared by at least some of the users.

    It is true, that, even without actual tests with actual participants, designers and others could get better at addressing the user’s perspective simply by asking about aspects of the design from that perspective—e.g., here, “What does ‘interchange level’ mean, if anything, to a typical traveler at King’s Cross?”—but they might get that perspective wrong and still, probably, will miss other things entirely.

  41. peterv said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    Ellen K at 3:51pm and Lee at 9:11 pm:

    I have long considered these imperatives to be aimed at collectives or groups, and have said so before on LL. The problem is that almost always the group has no agency. Instructing drivers to "Use both lanes" ignores the fact the the group of drivers is dispersed over both space and time, and that, with only a time-limited and geographically-limited local exception, drivers have no way to communicate with one another. Certainly, no driver has any way to communicate to all other drivers at once, nor to observe what all others are doing or intend to do.

    "Stand in a circle" addressed to a group of people can be achieved readily by only individual actions even though the collective as a whole has no agency, provided people can see one another. How many other people each person needs to see in order to achieve a circle readily is an interesting question. Similar problems arise in distributed computing and are studied under the name of Flag Co-ordination. Michael Kearns at University of Pennsylvania, for instance, has undertaken research in this area, including empirical work with real people. As one would expect, the greater the proportion of the collective each person can see, the faster desired global states are achievable. But the relationship between the proportion of others seen and the time to convergence is usually non-linear. We don't need to see everyone to act as if we can, provided we can see enough of the others.

  42. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 6:52 pm


    What Jeff W said.

    Of course it is the experts’ job to make their designs communicate effectively. But Mr. Pullum states suggests that something is wrong with the experts, based on his observation that they fail to achieve this, from which he concludes that they must not even be trying. The reality is that without a recognition of how hard a problem this is (such as Mr. Pullum himself displays here), it is not possible to succeed.

    Which is not to be read as criticism of Mr. Pullum. The very nature of the problem inherently implies that recognising it is hard.

    And that is what my absurd-seeming statement was supposed to convey. I’ll say it seemed obvious to me. Q.E.D. :-)

  43. Karl Weber said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    @Jeff W: "I have to say, as a usability professional who has run hundreds of usability tests, I agree entirely with Aristotle Pagaltzis’s observation that the tests always yield surprises and insights that the designer(s)—or even the usability professional—never could predict."

    In one of his books, popular theologian CS Lewis makes the point that it's quite difficult to know how exactly to modernize the language in religious texts to make them more understandable to contemporary audiences. He says he once asked a semi-educated acquaintance of his what it meant in the prayer book when it referred to the obligation of judges to "indifferently administer justice," and the man replied, "It means making no difference between one chap and another." When Lewis asked, "And what would it means if it said 'impartially'?" the man replied, "Don"t know, never heard of it."

  44. JS said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    I insist "hazmats" is nerdview. Based on how late in life it dawned on me, a lay driver, that this was not a kind of mat. Precisely how late being confidential.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:16 am

    I see two difficulties for a designer trying to understand a user's perspective. Speaking from my experience in writing, which has similar issues. One is simply being able to turn around and imagine yourself as the user. This should theoretically be easy, but a lot of people either aren't good at this or don't think to do it. When you've designed something, and you know how it works, and what everything does, it can be hard to imagine how you would see it if you didn't have that experience with it.

    The other difficulty is imagining the how it will be seen by someone who thinks differently from you. I think this is difficult for all of us. And the more we are different from the people we are creating for, the more likely it is to be an issue.

  46. Eneri Rose said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:53 am

    I think I've made this comment here before but it bears repeating. I did technical writing; user manuals, procedural instructions, etc. In one of my technical writing classes, the instructor used the term COIK meaning "clear only if known". It referred to what we are calling here nerdview.

    Regarding the road signs of the like "use all lanes", I love seeing them because they mean the majority of driver drones are prone to gravitate to some common route leaving another much less used route available to the few savvy drivers to gain a time advantage over the drones.

  47. Zeppelin said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:52 pm

    Nerdview of a sort is also a problem in visual art, which is why it's common practice to regularly look at your images mirrored while you're working on them.
    Staring at the same image for hours at a time, you tend to become pretty much blind to what it actually looks like, as opposed to your mental image of it. Mirroring makes it look "new" again. If you don't do this, it's surprisingly easy to make mistakes in composition or perspective that will be blindly obvious to anyone else. The image just makes sense to you. I have in the past attached hands the wrong way round, or the wrong number of fingers, and forgotten to draw the other half of partially obscured objects, and only noticed an hour later when doing the mirror check.

  48. Bloix said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 12:53 am

    As a daily subway rider, I've never had a problem with "use all doors." It's perfectly intelligible and not grating, and it's the clearest way to communicate the point. "Use any door," for example, would be precisely the opposite of what is intended.

  49. Alyssa said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 2:23 am

    I'd argue that it's actually a benefit that "use all doors" and "use both lanes" are addressed to the crowd, rather than the individual. It signals that the crowd often gets this wrong, and so the sign takes precedence over the crowd's behaviour.

    For example, if i were driving and saw a sign that read "use either lane" but all the drivers ahead of me were lining up in one lane, I might think that perhaps the other lane was blocked, or there was some other logical reason why the other drivers weren't using it. "Use both lanes" tells me that the crowd's behaviour is often wrong on this stretch of road, and I should feel confident in obeying the sign.

  50. Terry Hunt said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    Prof Pullum's initial problem seems to me to suggest a degree of inattentiveness :-). The standard London Underground maps carefully mark as Interchange Stations all those stations where one can change to one or more other lines and/or to British Rail lines, so transparently the Interchange Level is a level (not necessarily street level) at which one can do so. It is surely difficult to use the system to any extent without this being obvious, though I concede it might confuse a first-time or non-EFL visitor.
    Notwithstanding that, I fully endorse the discussions of the Nerdview problem's dificulty. This can cut both ways when one is writing material intended for both lay and expert readers (for varying values of expert): one has to cater for the former without appearing to insult the latter, so a degree of jargon (itself useful once learned) has to be mitigated by unobtrusive explanation and judicious guidance to references.

  51. BenHemmens said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    Stuff I didn't understand in the London public transport system:
    a) getting confused in a railway station and asking a gent behind a window how to get to Euston station. He had to say "you're on it, sir!" three time before I got it. I'd never heard of being 'on’ a railway station before (indoors!)
    b) standing in front of a platform barrier in the underground. uniformed LT blokes (multiple) trying to tell me to post my suitcase through the suitcase hole and go through the barrier myself. Totally unintelligible. Some seconds later accosted by a possibly destitute person with a Cork accent (I'm Irish, though at the time I was suffering a kind of double culture shock as I'd just come down (up!) from Scotland. I understood what she was saying but since the poor woman was asking me the way to somewhere, she had probably picked the person who could help her least of the dozens on the platform.

    London has this peculiar quality of having been part of one's mental furniture, indeed, subjectively a kind of centre of your cultural universe, all your life if you live in the UK or Ireland, but becoming impenetrably, intensely foreign when you go there.

    Sometimes I feel that Londoners are addicted to making the minutiae of everyday life so arcane, uncomfortable and difficult that they can constantly feel heroic about it, muddling through bravely, keeping the spirit of the Blitz alive …

  52. J Greely said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    A few years ago, I filled out a lengthy survey from Adobe about their graphics software. One of the questions asked about my satisfaction with "the onboarding process". Someone was self-aware enough to have added the explanation that "onboarding" meant "installing the software", but they didn't just fix the question.


  53. Jeff W said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

    Terry Hunt

    The standard London Underground maps carefully mark as Interchange Stations all those stations where one can change to one or more other lines and/or to British Rail lines…

    That actually raises another usability issue: referring to things in the same way wherever the reference occurs. So, if maps, signs, and so on refer to something having to with changing between lines in terms of an “interchange” (e.g., interchange station, interchange level), then it is actually good practice to refer to it as such in an elevator, for people who know that’s where they want to be. (That’s a separate issue from whether the reference is actually understandable or not.)

    That doesn’t mean it’s good practice to refer to it only in that way, especially in a situation such as an elevator where there might be few or no visual cues as to what that floor is or where it’s not easy to “recover” if you step out to figure it out and discover you’re not right (i.e., you have to wait for and get back in the elevator to get to the right floor)—it’s probably preferable to say something like “Interchange Level. Change to another line or to British Rail Lines.”

  54. Walter Burleigh said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

    Nerdview is a subcategory of what I call the "turn left where the yellow barn used to be" school of direction-giiving.

  55. Gwen Katz said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

    "Is everyone finished?"

    If the answer is "yes," no one can answer the question.

  56. Nathalie said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 1:04 am

    A university professor of mine who was notorious for having trouble with the technical equipment in the lecture hall once asked the audience: "Can everyone hear me? Who cannot hear me?"

  57. j said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 4:23 am

    After reading Terry Hunt's comment, I looked at the tube map on my phone and noticed for the first time that there is indeed a key including the words "interchange station". My previous lifelong ignorance of this never prevented me from using such stations, and from understanding the difference between them and non-interchange stations (or whatever they might be called). At least based on personal experience, I can't really accept the argument that, just from the map, users of the London Underground must be familiar with the term "interchange".

  58. j said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 6:36 am

    On the subject of instructions like "use both lanes", "use all doors", I observed something similar(ly maddening) in spoken at airport security. Passengers had made three queues for security 'stations' and even though a fourth one had opened up, the flow of people was not changing. The solution of the exasperated official was to loudly announce several times: "There are four stations*". Just as in the OP, a totally unhelpful intervention because there was no inferrable instruction that an individual could follow — and its literal content didn't constitute an instruction at all. The intended interpretation involved a perspective the hearers could hardly be expected to have (including having counted how many lines and how many security stations there were). And the consequences of rule breaking can be serious in that setting, so people are understandably reluctant to act without clear instructions.

    (*I'm not sure he said "stations", but something along those lines)

  59. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 9:05 am

    Probably even more confusingly to outsiders, "outerchange" is apparently also a lexeme in the specialized London-public-transportation variety of English: (I can think of at least one example of the same phenomenon in the NYC subway system, but I don't think it has a simple one-word label in NYC-subwayese.)

  60. Mattt said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 9:19 am

    There is probably an entire post that could be dedicated to examples of nerdview in NY subway announcements, which is a pet peeve of mine. This current service announcement is a gem:

    "N Astoria-bound trains run via the Q from DeKalb Avenue to Canal St."

    I'll leave it to the reader to unpack that announcement and draw conclusions about its status as nerdview – but suffice it to say that, except during late nights 12-6am, neither the N nor the Q train makes ANY stops between DeKalb and Canal.

    Unintelligible service announcements aside, in my view the most subtle and nefarious example of nerdview on the NY subway is the electronic signs that show time until the next train. These signs only have room to display two lines of text. How has the MTA decided to use these two lines of information? Well, the top line indicates the next approaching train – regardless of direction – while the bottom cycles through the next 5 or 6 trains, displaying each for about 5 seconds.

    I would hazard a guess that most commuters care only about the next train going their direction, meaning that half the display is always showing information that is meaningless for about half the people on the platform. Likewise, people probably do not care about which trains are arriving after the one they will board.

    When I arrive on the platform, what I want to know is how long I will have to wait for the next train to Brooklyn. Much of the time, instead all I learn is that the next uptown train is arriving in 3 minutes and that the 4th train to arrive will be a Brooklyn-bound one in 12 minutes. I have to wait for the bottom half of the sign to cycle through 3 or 4 more trains – none of which is relevant to any rider currently on the platform, all of whom will board earlier trains – before I learn when my train is coming. (A related or underlying element of the nerdview is that the MTA differentiates between, say, the 2 and 3 trains as if they were different routes, when in fact the two routes are coterminous throughout virtually all of Manhattan and most of Brooklyn, and therefore the two trains are identical from the perspective of the majority of riders)

  61. ajay said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    the top line indicates the next approaching train – regardless of direction – while the bottom cycles through the next 5 or 6 trains, displaying each for about 5 seconds.

    No, that's actually useful – a lot of people do care about the next-but-one train because, eg, I want a C-line train, and this platform is for A, B and C line trains, and the next one is an A-line train but I don't care about that, so please tell me how long I have to wait for my C-line train.

    What is confusing for the visitor is the MTA's coyness about directions of the compass. Rather than saying "this is a northbound A-line train" they will say "this is an A-line train for Von Braun Street" or something else equally meaningless, and leave you wondering whether you're going the right way or not.

  62. Gwen Katz said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    "N Astoria-bound trains run via the Q from DeKalb Avenue to Canal St."

    That looks like an algebra problem.

  63. DWalker said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

    My favorite is "please extinguish all smoking materials" that we (thankfully) no longer have to hear while flying. Who talks like that?

  64. Michael said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

    >>"Is everyone finished?"

    >>If the answer is "yes," no one can answer the question.

    Sounds like a Zombie Rule to me! *rimshot*

  65. BZ said,

    June 7, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    The NYC Subway calls "interchanges" transfers and "outerchanges" out-of-system transfers on the map (no idea how they are announced if at all). This is also not unambiguous because "system" is not defined. Does that mean there are multiple systems (subway, railroad, PATH). Differennt "systems" within the subway (IRT, BMT, etc)? Neither. You leave the subway system and re-enter it elsewhere.

  66. Faldone said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    It seems to me that many of these examples which have been classified as nerdview require a good bit of willful misunderstanding to be a problem. For example, anyone who tries to interpret USE BOTH LANES as meaning that they must, in fact, use both lanes or someone who feels that they cannot use the escalator without having a dog to carry is just putting too much effort into not understanding.

  67. Kaleberg said,

    June 11, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

    This is horrible:


    Device control block, error option is abnormal termination (ABEND). I had hoped all my OS \ 360 had been purged from my brain.

  68. Kaleberg said,

    June 12, 2016 @ 12:05 am

    One problem a lot of older computer nerds have is that an awful lot of our private jargon has infiltrated common public discourse. Words and phrases like download, program, RAM, operating system, internet, file, software, processor, disk drive and application are no longer strictly insider terms. Having used computers for somewhat more years than are probably good for my mental health, I sometimes find this common usage rather disorienting.

  69. Ted said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    BZ: The "system" is the New York subway system. Train announcements, e.g., when an F train arrives at 34th street, are in the form "Transfer available to the B, D, M, N, Q and R trains. Connection available to the PATH and Long Island Railroad." In this case, transfer refers to a change from one line to another within the system and connection refers to exiting the system and entering a system controlled by a different agency. This distinction is, of course, pure nerdview.

    With one exception, a transfer occurs entirely within the — there may not be a word for this in English, but the French would say enceinte — of the system. In other words, you don't exit through the turnstiles to the world outside. The exception is that you can exit the 59th Street N Q R 4 5 6 station and walk to the 63rd Street F station, or vice versa, and re-enter the system without paying an additional fare. Because re-entry is free, it qualifies as a transfer from one line to another, even though it doesn't feel like a transfer because it requires you to leave the enceinte. The train announcement in this case would be, e.g. on a Q train, "Transfer available to the N, R, 4, 5, and 6 trains. You may also transfer to the F train by walking to the 63rd Street station and using your MetroCard."

    In fact, the N, Q, and R trains were BMT; the 4, 5, and 6 trains were IRT, and the F train was IND, but this is now of purely historical relevance, although some oldsters still use these as descriptors.

    (I'm doing this all from memory, but I think it's pretty close.)

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