Thomas Countz

Repeated Signals Wear Grooves

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman shares an anecdote about “signifiers,” which are the design elements that communicate the purpose, structure, and operation of an object or system. The anecdote was about a wall onto which someone placed an empty bottle. Over time, more and more empty bottles showed up on this wall:

…as soon as one person discovers it can be used to dispose of empty drink containers, the discarded container becomes a signifier, telling others that it is permissible to discard their items there. (Norman, 2013).

This is a powerful message about the implicit, and often unconscious, signals we send one another on our teams.

For example, the boss may say “don’t feel like you have to work late,” but if they and other members of your team do, the implicit signal soon becomes louder than words.

This doesn’t always have to be negative, exhibiting healthy team customs, norms, and rituals also has the happy effect of instilling positive behaviors, too. If everyone is always on time to meetings, it can soon become a happy groove worn into the fabric of the team.

These grooves are worn in over time for better and for worse, however they aren’t a drop-in replacement for explicit team structures and boundaries. Signals help to reinforce healthy team habits and deter unhealthy ones, but they shouldn’t be relied upon to establish them.

Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. MIT Press.

· process, teams, consulting