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On the Usability of Name Tags

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I often attend events where some kind of name tag is given to every participant. When designing those name tags, there are certain pitfalls you should avoid. Yes of course, name tags might not be the most important part of any event but if you provide name tags, you should make sure that they are simply functional. No more, no less.

Many times name tags provide a bad handling experience for the person who wants to attach this tag to itself. Other name tags are simply useless because the information is not able to be transmitted from the sender (person where the tag is attached to) to the receiver (person who wants to consume the information about the sender).

A short disclaimer: most oft the things mentioned here are common sense. At least I do think so. But the name tags I see at events seem to tell me that some people desperately need to read a blog entry like this one.

Definition

What do I mean by the term »name tags« by the way?

Name tags - at least in the context here - are badges, lanyards, stickers, and all other types of visible assigning at least a name to a person.

Mounting

How the name tag is attached to a person has a huge impact on the usability experience of the name tag. Taking into account that the name tag is part of the very first seconds of an event, this little thing takes part of the first impression of every event. And you might already know, how important it is to provide a good experience for the first impression, don't you? :-)

Clip

Name tags using any kind of clip can be mounted very easily and fast on any suit. You can attach them on t-shirts and shouldered bags as well. Sometimes people lose name tags of this type but this might be considered a minor problem because name tags are inherently labeled quite well :-)

Combined tags using clip and needle are common. I hardly see people using the needle if they got a clip too.

Usually, clip name tags are the best choice.

Needle

One of the most prominent name tag type is the one using a needle or a pin to fix the tag to some kind of clothing.

Unfortunately those needles are difficult to handle, sometimes resulting in bleeding fingers or similar. If you observe event participants mounting a needle name tag, you get the strong feeling that those tags are not liked very much.

Not to mention the fact that needles can destroy fine clothing. I've seen people neglecting the name tag provided just because they wore a new suit at a conference.

So needles do not seem to be a good idea for name tags.

Lanyard

You'll recognize events where they are using lanyards when approximately 50 per cent of the name tags are just plain white pieces of paper. This happens when the organizing team is only providing one printed page of the two sided lanyard. Please avoid that mistake at any circumstances!

Lanyards are easily attached but they are slightly inconvenient when bending down or if you straddle gates.

Assuming that you avoid the blind-side-problem, lanyards are a reasonable choice for name tags.

Sticker

The cheapest method to do name tags is the sticker method. Usually you are using laser printer labels which are used for labeling letters or packages.

There are many different sticker labels out there. Make sure that you test the very same stickers that you are going to use for an event: print on them, use them by yourself for a couple of days. Just like on the every you are going to organize. To avoid any laughter you can try to print a cool motivation message onto it :-)

What you have to test is the strongness of the glue (not to strong which harms any fine clothing, not to weak to avoid loosing the tag), the endurance (how does the tag stick after being removed and re-attached a couple of times), and the print (does it lose color).

If the label passes the test, you can consider the sticker for an event. But be aware that a sticker always makes the impression of being »cheap«.

Wristbands

Simply avoid wristbands for the purpose of name tags. This does not work on events where you are not going to take someones hand to look at her/his wristband more closely.

Readability

The main purpose of a name tag is that the receiver is able to read at least the name of the sender.

Despite the fact that this purpose is that obvious, this is where most name tags fail miserably. Do not print important information using a small font size. People want to be able to read important information from a distance that can be labeled as the »physical comfort zone«. People probably want to identify the name of a person without getting so close to »provoke« (at least) a small talk.

Many things affect the readability of a name tag. Some are mentioned below.

Name

Lady's and gentleman, presenting the most important content of any name tag: the name. Please use as much space as possible for the name.

This is not easy to do!

There are big differences regarding to names: for an international event you have to produce good name tags for »Kaley Cuoco« as well as for »Rajesh Ramayan Koothrappali«.

This means that you are actually want a system that can print any name »as large as possible« within a given (usually) rectangle-shaped area. This would lead to optimized space coverage. The longer a name, the smaller the characters.

You can make a trade-off by printing only big family names with smaller printed first names. Especially at international events it could be hard to tell which part of a name belongs to first name and which to the family name. In this case you are lucky if the electronic registration software asking for at least first name and family name was filled out by the participants themselves.

Affiliation

At many events you might be interested in the affiliation of a person you are talking to. Be aware that this is often less important as the name. And the affiliation requires more characters as the name. So please do use smaller font here. Again: drop it if possible.

Style, layout, font

Since a name tag can only be recognized with all of its attributes, you have to take a look not only on the content but also on the way the content is presented.

I sometimes exchanged the name tag in my event badge by my business card simply because its readability was better. Please note that business cards are bad name tags too: they are designed to be read in your hand or on the table directly in front of you. Now you can imagine how badly designed a name tag has to be when you have to replace it with your business card.

Size

First of all: do not produce name tags that are too small!

As a rule of thumb you can avoid form factors smaller than business cards. The bigger the better. (Of course there are name tags that get unusable because they are too big but this is seldom the case.)

Shape

Usually name tags are rectangular. If you want to create the impression of being creative, you can produce other shapes like round ones. Be aware where you lose the path of being »professional«.

Color

You get the best contrast for reading when using the usual black characters on white background. (Or black on some kind of yellowish background research says.) Stick to that for best result.

Font

Seriffed typeface are good for setting a large amount of words spanning over multiple lines and paragraphs. But for things like name tags, please use a sans-serif typeface.

By the way, never ever use Comic Sans. You've been warned.

Unimportant content

Anything which is not that important that the name gets smaller should not be printed on a name tag. Minimalistic design wins again.

If the title of the participants are not that important, drop them. Same goes for the job descriptions.

Even if you are proud of your event logo, print it very small or drop it too. If there is no »hidden« functionality (e.g. to differentiate participants from event A to event B at the same location, ...), the logo does not add any important information to the participants at all. They know where they registered and came to. This also holds for the event title: it's just not important (any more) when you are at the event.

You might think that it is obvious that the event address or some kind of cool looking design graphics does not belong on name tags. But be warned: you'll see them on many name tags out there. Please avoid this mistake.

Some events print small photographs on name tags. Unless the name tag is not used for identification, there is no use for that. If you want to have a picture to the name, simply look in the face above.

Processability

Besides the content and the style of the name tag, the ability to use the tag and process the information provided is a part in the chain of the system.

Humans

As already mentioned above, easy mounting is a crucial thing which is part of the first impression of an event. Make sure that the name tags can be mounted fast, easily, and does not harm any clothing.

Name tags should not get lost during normal motion like going, sitting, standing up or sitting down, visiting the bathroom, eating, and so forth. If you are using tags that are made of transparent plastic filled with some kind of paper, make sure that the paper does not slide out of the tag. This is usually the case with tags that are being filled from the side.

The most important target for a name tag are the other participants of the event. Humans should be able to read the tags. Multiple factors already mentioned above address this issue.

Machines

In the last decade, mobile computing got popular. So called smart phones, tablet computers of any kind, and even small notebooks are handy companions even of an average event participant. Name tags can be used to help computers to process information of a person too. Here is a small list you might be interested in.

General

Size

There you are: which information is more important? The human readable text or the machine readable code? Decide for yourself using your requirements but make this decision consciously.

Glossy

If you are using tags with a transparent plastic, make sure that the surface is not that glossy. This is a problem for scanning (and reading!) the tag.

Content

What should be in the machine readable information? You can decide: only basic data per person, a mailto-link, a URI, a short description, ...

Be aware that you ask for permission to put detailed personal information on a machine readable tag (or on a name tag in general)!

QR-Codes

QR-codes are everywhere. You might already recognize this black and white matrix. There are many scanner applications for all smart phones out there and you can create your own QR-Codes very easily.

Redundancy

If you are creating QR-Codes please use at least Level M with 15 per cent of error correction capacity. In case of bad conditions, the reader can get you the information more easily.

Barcodes

Barcodes did not get a wide application on name tags. QR-Code is more widespread and provides more features for your purpose. Stick to that unless you have a very good reason.

For size and content issues, refer to the previous section about QR-Code.

NFC

Near Field Communication (short: NFC) is getting popular in the last years. With cheaper NFC chips available more and more services are using this kind of wireless data transmission. For example if you were skiing in Austria, there is a high chance that you already were using NFC with your skiing ticket without noticing.

More and more countries are equipping passports or ID cards in general with NFC chips.

If you are planning to use NFC on your name tags, be sure to meet all privacy and security issues related to that topic! As usual: whenever someone is telling you that a system is absolutely secure, he or she is lying to you. This will never change.

There is a big discussion going on related to wireless technologies. The owner does not have any control who is going to read the information. It is also the case that NFC chips can being scanned from a couple of hundreds of meters. Be aware of the problems related to this issue and avoid unnecessary usage of NFC technology if unsure.

Scanning/Photographing

In recent years many people started to use the digital cameras (of their cellphone) to take photographs of people they meet. With a good name tag, you can also read the content of the tag afterward.

Testing your tag

When you are designing a name tag, you might be interested to test, if it works. As with any kind of thing you are producing, you as the creator have a different view on the thing than anybody else in the world. Independent feedback is needed to gap that lack of consciousness.

One simple trick is to take a photograph of yourself with a name tag. Make sure that you cover at least your whole head downwards to the hip. If you can read the name tag on the display of your camera or smart phone, this is a very good sign.

Print out several name tags using long and short names. The more empty white space is visible, the worse. You can use up all your space with the important information. It's no matter of style to waste space on a name tag. Unless the style is more important than the functionality of the name tag.

As mentioned above, test your name tag a couple of days - regarding to events that last several days. Does it war out? Do you get problem when switching your clothing? Is it still readable on the last day of your test?

And now for the most important test: ask other people. Ignore people telling you to use this or that fancy font, make the name smaller, or add other kind of distractions to your tag.

When you are not the designer

If you are participant at an event that provides you no name tag at all or if the name tag is badly designed, be sure to have your personal name tag in your business bag. You can design your personal tag with your personal requirements (short name, long name, ...) upfront and re-use it on events providing bad tags.

When your lanyard does contain only a one-side-printout, ask for a second printout of your name tag. Pretend that you've lost your lanyard if necessary.

Final notes

Wow, I am amazed by myself how long this blog post is. Although being part of common sense (I think), there are a lot of things that someone can do to make a bad name tag. Probably you can judge the quality of (at least the organization of) the event by looking at the name tag they want you to wear. And probably you are doing a better job in creating name tags for the next event your are part of the organization team.

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