Fuel pump arrows

Well the first thing, I got me a fuel pump

— Johnny Cash, One Piece At A Time

A fuel pump icon from a car dashboard with a triangle pointing left

Above is an icon of a petrol pump, which you will see on pretty much every car dashboard. Most (not all) modern-ish cars also have a little triangle next to the petrol pump icon. That little triangle points either right or left: it is showing on which side of the car the hole for putting petrol in is. So the one above (with the triangle arrow thing helpfully coloured in red) means that the fuel pipe is on the left-hand-side of the car.

I did not know this. It turns out that lots and lots of other people do not know this either. The world seems to be divided into three roughly equal-sized classes: people who already know this and are amazed that everyone did not; people who did not know this and are amazed; and people who say “my car doesn’t have that, is it a US/UK/EU-only thing?”

There is a lesson here, though. This is, once you know what it means, quite an elegant little solution. Now that you know it, you’ll never pull into a petrol station on the wrong side of the pump ever again. It’s clever, it’s simple, and… half the people in the world don’t know about it. There are, I’m sure, conclusions to be drawn about usability studies, iconography, and so on. I mean, spare a thought for the usability testing team on your project at this moment. How do you test this? If you show someone the icon and say “what does this mean?” most people would (probably) guess correctly. The point here is: once you know that the triangle means something, it’s reasonably easy to guess what the something is. But if you don’t know that it’s there for a reason, a goodly proportion of people (myself included) will never think to wonder about it, and so won’t ever learn that it represents a useful bit of information. This has ramifications for how you yourself do usability testing for the things you make.

This has been a party political broadcast on behalf of the “semiotics is useless if you don’t realise there’s a meaning there to discuss, Umberto Eco” party.

I'm currently available for hire, to help you plan, architect, and build new systems, and for technical writing and articles. You can take a look at some projects I've worked on and some of my writing. If you'd like to talk about your upcoming project, do get in touch.

More in the discussion (powered by webmentions)

  • Seth Darkness responded at twitter.com I was my age 10 seconds ago !
  • Alan Pope 🍺🐧🐱🇬🇧🇪🇺 responded at twitter.com
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com yeah, I know. Not sure why it's there. But I think if I edit it, it'll show up in the RSS feed, so I decided to leave it alone...
  • Joshua Hoover responded at twitter.com
  • Marius Quabeck responded at twitter.com
  • Will Cooke responded at twitter.com
  • Monica Ayhens-Madon responded at twitter.com For a minute I was worried you were younger than me, then I checked the date you posted, and all is good in the world again.
  • Seán Doherty responded at twitter.com 40 ish. A car hire person told me when I asked which side the filler hole was. I have never felt so stupid
  • John Drinkwater responded at twitter.com
  • Sergio Schvezov responded at twitter.com Today
  • 2711chrissi responded at twitter.com
  • Martyn Welch responded at twitter.com I think it's a relatively new addition. When I became aware of this a few years back the old cars we were driving didn't have it. It's a nice additio…
  • HydraCluster✨ responded at twitter.com
  • Daniel Davidson responded at twitter.com
  • Ivanka Majic responded at twitter.com Hooray! It makes me happy that I taught you something given the levels of clever clogs that you operate at. That has given me a nice boost as I delve…
  • Ingrid Koehler responded at twitter.com Today.
  • Bjoern Michaelsen ([email protected]) responded at twitter.com
  • bas r responded at twitter.com Today. 40 🤣
  • Stuart Langridge responded at twitter.com I am almost disappointed that I don't own a car so I never get to use this nugget of truth :)
  • Robert Collins responded at twitter.com
  • lana lanaski responded at twitter.com Nine days before my 37th birthday, apparently kryogenix.org/days/2013/01/2… :-) It was @ivanka who taught me that. https://