• Thoughts on UX and the NYC Subway

    by  • December 4, 2013 • UX • 0 Comments

    Fig.-3-79-origI recently returned from a trip to New York where I had a chance to use the subway system pretty extensively. As a UX guy, I’m always looking for good user experiences in unlikely places. The subway system was a really good lesson, because it, like many of the projects I work on, has several elements that make the user experience particularly difficult to orchestrate. For starters:

    1. A huge variety of different users with an enormous range of priorities, skills and comfort levels
    2. A wide variety of different interfaces to choose from
    3. An environment that is often confusing with little consistency in feedback
    4. High penalties for mistakes
    5. Time constraints
    6. Support of legacy interfaces and environments

    Let’s take a quick look at the first one:

    1. A huge variety of different users with an enormous range of priorities, skills and comfort levels

    On the same train I noticed students, parents with young kids, experienced (albeit jaded) subway commuters, shoppers, non-English speakers, homeless, teens, tourists, etc. Initially, they had the same general goal: go somewhere within the five boroughs. They walk down a flight of steps into the tunnel. After this, we begin what will be a lengthy process of divergence.  As with any diverse user base, this gets very complex very quickly. For instance:

    metrocardThis is the level of complexity before the user even enters onto the platform.  They are just buying the card. Because you need a Metrocard to ride the subway, this is somewhat simplified (although there is a separate set of tasks specific to the machine).

    At this point, we need to begin segmenting the users. Assume two main segments of commuter or tourist. What kind of commuter? Rush hour office? Student? Jazz musician carrying a double bass or a drum kit? And what kind of tourist? English speaker? City dweller from another urban environment? And with these users, what is the priority? A tourist may be in a hurry, or may be feeling panic because they feel unsafe. A commuter might be exhausted and afraid of falling asleep (and winding up in Coney Island, a not-uncommon occurrence.)

    The solution to this complexity can be found in the way the way the fares are handled: find a way to meet as many needs as you can with a simple solution. The Metrocard machines take both credit cards and cash (bills and coins). They do not take foreign currency, although NYC is an international city and many foreigners use the subway. Nor are legacy currencies supported (such as subway tokens). There is no cash option at the gates, either. The majority of the users’ needs are met by making certain some constraints are universal.

    Once on the train, we start seeing how the different user priorities begin affecting their actual experiences. Let’s take a short persona of a tourist as an example:

    MILDRED AND JIM

    • From Topeka KS
    • Visiting daughter Emily in Williamsburg
    • Want to see the Statue of Liberty
    • Have been to NYC in the 1970s, but not since

    Seeing this short persona set, we can surmise a few details about what their primary concerns might be:

    • Not from a big city, so they may be intimidated
    • Have an idea of what they want to do that is based on a preconceived idea
    • Previous experience of the city markedly different
    • Worried about safety
    • Worried about getting lost

    Because they visited during a time when the subways were indeed dangerous, they may still carry this preconception with them throughout the experience despite the visual evidence to the contrary:

    This is what they’re thinking

    1CBXT

    even though they actually see this:

    nyc-subway

     

    So, there are some things that these users might want to see. Regualr announcements of the stations, a clean and graffiti -free environment, easy-to-read maps… these would all go a long way to helping them overcome the preconceptions and make their experience more enjoyable and useful.

    When we go back and look at our list, we find that these improvements go a long way toward addressing many of the concerns:

    1. A huge variety of different users with an enormous range of priorities, skills and comfort levels
    2. A wide variety of different interfaces to choose from
    3. An environment that is often confusing with little consistency in feedback
    4. High penalties for mistakes
    5. Time constraints
    6. Support of legacy interfaces and environments

    The various users, of course, will need a rudimentary knowledge of English if the train information is verbal, but this could be remedied by a simple visual interface. Also, many of the riders wear headphones and need visual feedback. The visual display would need to be high enough so that even when the cars are crowded they remain visible. They need to be simple enough that anyone can understand them.

    The current system is a mess, with a combination of maps, announcements (over bad speakers so garbled you can bare hear them), text displays that are great if you read English and… best of all… a simple route map with the stations plainly marked, lighting up as you go (the only drawback being that you can only see a few stations ahead and behind).

    As always, it’s the understanding of the users’ needs and emotional context that will show the path toward a good solution.

    Lastly, let’s not forget about this:

     

     

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    The UX voice crying in the wilderness, but glad that it's getting better all the time.

    http://grapnel.net/carroll

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