NYC as an interface

New York City
Photo by Delcio G.P.Filho.

The big apple.

Many say it’s the greatest city in the world. Whether or not you agree, there’s no denying it’s an incredibly dense place with an overwhelming amount of people and things to do. Not only are there over 40 million tourists annually, jostling to see the sights and get a taste of the cultural capital but there are also over 8 million people living here ? struggling to manage the tasks of daily living amongst all the tourists. That’s a lot of people with very different goals. How do they all figure it out?


(For those of you not in New York, you might want to consider pressing play for some mood music.)

The usability of cities

I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks and am struck by how some cities are easier to use than others. Since I’m in the business of interfaces I’ve been thinking about it in those terms. Just like software, smaller cities with few features are generally (but not always) fairly easy to use. Once you have a large, complex city with many features ? like NYC ? it gets much more challenging to maintain that ease of use.

New York City is an incredibly powerful interface with multiple entry points and endless features. One might say it has feature bloat. It overloads the senses and it’s not always easy to navigate and understand, yet people learn to use it effectively and often grow to love it.

I love New York

In that way it’s like Adobe Photoshop – optimized for expert users, perfect for their needs once they have taken the time to learn how it works, but very intimidating to novice users. Over 40 million of tourists enter the city each year and have to navigate the New York City ‘interface.’ How do they figure it out?

Navigating New York

From a physical standpoint New York is pretty easy to navigate. The basic grid structure is consistent, except for the villages, and numbered streets helps one stay oriented.

Getting around

There are many ways to get around: the metro, cabs, buses, bicycles and your own two feet. For the most part these are all pretty easy to use, but there are a few codes that can be confusing to figure out at first – for example you can’t just hail any old cab. Well you can, but only a select few will stop. The trick is to know what the various lighting configurations of the taxi sign mean: no light mean the taxi already has a fare; just the middle light means it’s available; if both the side lights are on too, then the cab driver is off duty.

taxi lights

The system doesn’t break if you’re unaware of this code but it can go more smoothly if you know which cabs to wave at and it’s not so frustrating when you know why four cabs speed past you before one stops. This lighting code may be documented somewhere, but who ever reads the user manual anyway? Like many of my favorite product features, the only reason I know about it is because someone told me. That’s how I discovered my most frequently used Web browser shortcuts – F5 to refresh the page, and F6 to place the cursor in the address bar. Similarly, they’re not critical to basic usage but they make me more efficient and improve my experience.

Getting around NYC is not too difficult, even for first timers. There are lots of wayfinding cues and breadcrumbs to keep you on track and indicate where you are.

finding your way

It’ll be easy to get there, once you figure out where to go. And that is where the NYC interface can get complicated – especially for power users.

New York for newbies

An interface optimized for novice users is very different from one designed to meet the needs of power users. The interesting thing about NYC is has to offer both, overlaid with one another. The goals of first time visitors are typically very different from residents’ goals. They don’t need to work out the logistics of daily life like shopping for groceries in a city where it’s not practical to own a car. Tourists are typically more interested in seeing the major sights and enjoying some quintessentially New York experiences – like eating a hot dog from a street car, catching a show on Broadway or maybe passing by the David Letterman studio (especially in light of the current scandal.)

Since these are popular features typically used by novices, they have been made accessible with ‘big friendly buttons’ ? your hotel maps or a quick “what to do in NYC” search on Google will provide details on where and how to do these things. Even the iPhone map of NYC highlights the Letterman studio as a tourist attraction.

iPhone map

The various aspects of the NYC interface work well together -highlighting features that new users care about and making them easy to find and use. The only problem then is to deal with all the other newbies trying to do the same things, resulting in long wait times and unavailability of certain features.

The New York power users: Daily tasks and discernment

Interfaces that optimize for power users are often very complicated; with so many features and capabilities that almost none of them are readily discoverable or intuitive, but once you learn to use them it’s a smooth and efficient experience.

Expert users in the city tend to know their way around pretty well, but since NYC is so big, they specialize in a particular area. Not unlike the way users of an incredibly complex program may specialize in a particular area. They have a working knowledge of the other areas, but stick to using the one they know best. For example, my friends who live in TriBeCa are a fountain of knowledge about anything below 14th street but once I go above that they can’t help me.

Residents’ goals and tasks are very different from tourists. They avoid highly populated tourist areas, favoring things that are off the beaten path. They value the hidden features, wanting to discover something new and special -just like the super geeks looking for the tricks that developers hid away somewhere: a secret way to do something cool and special. And it’s most satisfying if they’re among the first to find it.

If you need something to eat you don’t have to go far in NYC. You can’t walk half a block without stumbling on at least two restaurants and one hotdog cart. The challenge comes when you want to be more discerning about it. In order to filter through the obvious options and get to something good you have to do some work. There are tools to help you along, for example the New York Times, Time Out, NYCgo, Yelp and many more – all serving as guides to help people discover which restaurant has the best food, or atmosphere, or prices. The problem is,once something starts to get a lot of positive reviews, the crowds aren’t far behind, and accessibility and quality often decline. What people really need is access to an expert to help them.

One common pattern I’ve noticed doing design research is that a common way for people to learn a complex interface is to work closely with someone who already knows it. This is very true for New York. The quintessential New York conversation tends to revolve around where to find the best “insert food item or service here.” Everyone is trying to learn the best tricks to make the interface work for them. It’s kind of like listening to gaming geeks talk about how they navigated a level of the latest “it” game.

Gaming NYC

The NYC interface really is most like a gaming interface which makes sense, since life is not just about achieving goals and performing tasks, it’s about having frivolous fun, being surprised and following ridiculous dreams. That is where the NYC interface performs best. It’s full of challenges, surprises and delights as you navigate through it as you attend to the day-to-day.

One I came upon recently is the High line park.

The High Line Park

About a year ago I posted “designing time to think” encouraging us to consider how we can create pauses and moments for refection in our interfaces and this is a perfect example. It’s an old freight rail line converted into a raised natural park. The design was led by James Corner Field Operations, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In a city that is so dense that people are cars are now vertically stacked it makes sense to vertically layer natural spaces and pauses into this interface.

Where I’m left in my ponderings is that as an interface NYC is multi-layered, and like most games you have to start at the first level. Once you’ve seen the major sites and gotten a sense for the basic layout, then you progress to the next level – searching for attractions that are off the beaten path, although you may not get very far unless you plug into the community and enlist people’s help to find the cool features. As for becoming a true expert, it will take years of experience. It’s this challenge that attracts that special breed of people to make it their home and become true New Yorkers.

4 Comments

Mark Buccella
Great article! I need to go out and evaluate my own city's interface now (Minneapolis).
David Fore
Once again, Emma, you've brought good ole fashioned Goal-Directed IxD thinking to bear on a complex system problem. Doing so has gigantic implications, because it allows us to approach the city as a design problem that can be approached constructively. You may want to check out Ben Bratton's piece on the interfaciality of the metropolis (wrt Mumbai attacks) here: http://tinyurl.com/yg8dlps
Nick Myers
I love this and now am desperate to see one for SF and London. You could become the travel corespondent for UI global tours. The challenge with the NY interface is that it's a dense complex app with lots of features. It takes a while to find the gems but once you do you learn to love and appreciate it. Then you get to skip the splash screens like Times Sq. I still don't get when taxis are free vs. not. So I just always stick up my hand. PS. Thanks for the F6 tip. I wish I could hit F6 in life and be transported back home.
Tomer Pintel
I think the cabs "interface" is not as good as it can be. From the users' point of view, the only thing that matters is if the cab is available or not. We don't care if the cabby is off duty or the cab is already full, for us it has the same result - the cab won't stop. The system should have been a binary one - On light for available and Off light for not.

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