24 December 2015

Lessons from the Miss Universe 2015 pageant: behind many fails lurk bad design choices

Anyone performing live dreads screwing up. At least in theatre, it’s unlikely to be recorded. But on television, those epic fails will live on for a long time.

This weekend, everyone was talking about this year’s Miss Universe pageant. I am not particularly interested in these events, but host Steve Harvey made an astonishing mistake on live television. He named the wrong winner.

It was just terrible for everyone concerned.

But soon after the event, the card Harvey had to read was posted:

Although this article says, “it’s safe to say it wasn’t the cue card’s fault,” it’s not that cut and dry. When the card was posted on Facebook:

The post has received almost 5000 comments, many agreeing it was understandable he misconstrued the order.

Suddenly, the path to the screw-up seems much more clear. This card did not help Harvey. And the problems with this card are ones that I see on posters all the time.

First, the card doesn’t follow our expected pattern for reading. Instead of the list running from top to bottom, after two names, it suddenly veers right into unknown territory. As this article put it:

(W)hy would they put the winner all the way down at the bottom, underneath “2nd runner up” and “1st runner up?” Everyone knows what “1st” means, and that’s just confusing(.)

There’s actually a term for the phenomenon of tending to ignore things that are placed over to the right: banner blindness. In this time of high Internet use, we’ve gotten used to mostly irrelevant stuff being shoved over to the sides, so people don’t look there very much.

The positions of the three slots on the card becomes more critical when you consider the circumstances when the card is read.

Harvey first reads the card when three finalists are standing to announce the second runner up. Then, to announce the winner, Harvey reads the card when two finalists are standing. When you have two people standing, it’s easy to make the link from the two people to the two words on the left, USA and Colombia. And which one are you going to read? 

And there’s one more problem:

“Philippines”... is printed precisely where a user would likely place their thumb.

Second, the size of the text doesn’t signal importance consistently. The best design feature of this card is that “Miss Universe 2015” is set in a large point size. But the critical word, the winning contestant, is far too small. It just vanishes off the page.

If “Philippines” had been the same size as “Miss Universe 2015,” I think the chance of a mistake would have dropped way down.

One other possibility would have been to make one separate card that declared the winner, with nothing else on it, so you could not confuse the sequence. But it’s easy to say that in retrospect, knowing that Harvey made a mistake.

I like this redesign:

Another redesign is here.

This card may well become one of the most intensely scrutinized pieces of design since the “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 American presidential election.
Everyone would like to think that they could read a card like the one that was posted. It wasn’t as though the text was unclear or incorrect. All you had to do was read. But the reality is that people make mistakes, and the way you expect someone to read a card is not necessarily the way they will read it.

External links

Look at Steve Harvey’s Card – He Was Set up to Fail
Would you be confused by the Miss Universe winner’s card?
Here’s A Look At The ‘Miss Universe’ Ballot Card That Caused Steve Harvey To Malfunction 
Steve Harvey Didn’t Ruin Miss Universe, Bad Design Did
We asked design experts if Steve Harvey's Miss Universe flub can be blamed on the ballot card
Don’t Blame Steve Harvey: Bad Design Caused the Miss Universe Fiasco
Last night’s Miss Universe screw-up could have been prevented with good UX

Hat tip to Sakshi Puri.