Posts Tagged ‘cities’

User-friendly cities

2012/05/13 1 comment

What is a user-friendly city? We say that the iPhone is user-friendly, but what about Washington, D.C. or Madrid? The concept of designing from a user-centric perspective is common in the creation of web and mobile applications. There is a whole field of User Experience (UX) designers who take a holistic approach to optimizing the “system of systems” that make a product. A major focus of my company is helping people navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces, so I look at the world through this lens all the time. But who does user experience design for our cities? For whom are we designing? And even if an amazing design is created, how does it get implemented amidst the dynamic cultural, political, and economic flows of a city?

There are increasingly-many similarities between web and mobile applications and cities. Both often start as small endeavors, experiments cobbled together out of necessity or a dream of a better way. Sometimes they stick, attracting citizens and snowballing. Sometimes they die, fading into just another line in a history book (or Wikipedia entry). Sometimes, they turn into something entirely unintended by their founders:

  • SF: Spanish mission to gold rush boom town to silicon valley.
  • Shenzhen: fishing village to financial center.
  • Burbn: HTML5 location-based service becomes top photo-sharing app.
  • MS Excel: intended for financial calculations, actually (ab)used for: lightweight databases, recording OSHA notes, list of b-day party invites

So, why do we have cities? What are they intended to do? Most cities are concentrations of economic and social activity collected under some form of governance, and many provide “systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation“. From this, we can derive that the intended users for cities are people (Note: while this may seem obvious to us, Douglas Adams asserts that an outside observer may be mistaken). But even if we can agree that cities are designed for use by people, who are these particular people? Are they permanent residents or temporary visitors? Are they old or young? What languages do they speak? What type of education do they have? Do they like Bluegrass music?

A major challenge for both cities and software is making changes amidst a large-scale deployment. Like a large enterprise application, cities have a lot of legacy features that must be supported, and a very broad user-base. It’s not easy to rebuild from scratch, without incurring a major service interruption, or alienating a significant group of users. While the existence of software is relatively new, cities have been around for much of human history. For most places, it’s likely that the original city founders are now dead. Even if they were alive, society has changed so much that the founders wouldn’t understand today’s version of their city even if they found a way to exist in it. Even for current residents, making drastic changes is painful. Consider how young Facebook is, but how much its users complain when the service gets a new feature (or kills an old one). What if we re-routed a major highway around a city? What if taxes disappeared…or doubled? What if food trucks show up? What if we un-bury a river through downtown?

My hope for improving the user experience of cities lies on making small changes, rather than big ones. The pilot projects that Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Blumberg run in NYC seem very similar to the iteration and experiments advocated by Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. I’m also curious to observe a few technologists try their hands at designing cities, as the new Apple campus comes to fruition, designed in part by the late Steve Jobs. Online shoe mogul Tony Hsieh is knee-deep in recreating downtown Las Vegas, taking a gamble that he can transform a part of Sin City into a self-contained oasis for Zappos and its creative class friends.

I’m excited to be part of OpenLexington, a group of volunteers who work on open-data projects in Lexington, KY. Right now, I wouldn’t rate our city as very user-friendly. The roads are organized in an uncommon way, to get things done you often have to “know someone“, and our tight-knit social circles make it difficult for outsiders (eg UK graduate students) to integrate. With OpenLexington, we have the opportunity to greatly improve the UX of the relatively new digital infrastructure that co-exists with our city’s much older physical infrastructure. We’re starting with some small projects, like making it easier to find bicycle parking around town, and creating a web-accessible version of local restaurant health ratings. But someday, as our small actions accumulate, perhaps we can have a big impact, like making it easier for relocating families to feel at home in Lexington, or breaking down the artificial borders among our diverse population. Groups like us around the world are always looking for help, so if you grok this stuff, join in!

A new mental map for Lexington

2012/03/18 4 comments

I grew up in Omaha, NE which is geographically organized in a familiar Cartesian coordinate system (ie a grid). There are 8 major roads running East-West, and a series of numbered streets increase in value as you move from East to West. Once you understand this model of the city of Omaha, you can rather easily visualize where “156th and Dodge St.” is located*. I’ve struggled to do the same with my new home of Lexington, KY. It is neither arranged on a N-S axis, nor follows a common grid pattern outside of downtown. As I am involved in a company that provides indoor navigation services, I wanted to try my hand at designing for the outdoor world. Additionally,  improving the communication of the design of transportation systems seems to be a popular thing these days. So, I offer you the following as a potential alternative mental model of Lexington’s geographic layout:

Map of Lexington, KY

This map shows a quick overlay highlighting the major roads in Lexington. You’ll notice that there are roughly two rings around the city (New Circle Road is the inner ring, and  Man-O-War Boulevard/I-75** form the outer ring). There are also 4 major paths that cut through the city (I say paths because there are actually 8 named roads, more like spokes). If we assume that downtown is a finite point (which it is not), then these 4 paths intersect each other near the center of the concentric circles (there is a slight North shift in actuality).

Lexington's major roads in a simplified diagram

This happens to form the basis for a polar coordinate system, wherein we can describe any location in Lexington based on an angle from North, and a radius from the center point (or, as it works out in this case, CentrePointe). For instance, the University of Kentucky is located between 135° and 180° (ie South-Southeast) at a radius of 0.5 (somewhere between the origin point and New Circle Road, which I assigned the radius value of “1”). It is important to note that this is not a geographically accurate map. It might be better described as a diagram, similar to the famous London Tube Map.

Lexington in polar coordinate slices

Realizing that many people are less familiar with the Polar Coordinate system than they are with the Cardinal Directions, I decided to offer the city of Lexington chopped into 24 slices. These slices are formed from the directions on a 16-point Compass Rose, and a radius of 0 (inside New Circle), 1 (between New Circle and Man-O-War/I-75), and 2 (outside Man-O-War/I-75). Here, the University of Kentucky is located in SSE0. The amorphous green outer band is meant to symbolize the ring of horse farms that surround Lexington. The other colors were selected more arbitrarily (because I like RGB). If you have a keener eye for design, feel free to share something that uses color more purposefully, or at least aesthetically.

So, do I expect this nomenclature to catch on? Heck no! But armed with this oversimplified mental model, perhaps more people can start using a more colloquially-relevant Polar coordinate system to more concisely communicate locations in Lexington. For instance, I would describe the location of University of Kentucky as, “between Nicholasville Road and Tates Creek Road***, inside New Circle.” The Hamburg Pavilion shopping center is located, “between Richmond Road and Winchester Road, just inside Man-O-War Blvd.” I favor this method because of its precision. Based on my casual anecdotal observations, my proposed system must overcome the incumbent coordinate system, which is primarily landmark-based. Most people I have observed make references relative to UK, Hamburg, Fayette Mall, Lexmark, Keeneland/Bluegrass Airport. “Check out this new restaurant, it’s by the Mall.” While this is useful for conversations among locals, with sufficient local knowledge of these landmarks, I don’t think this helps as much for new visitors. However, it’s possible that I am wrong and that these major landmarks are easier to quickly commit to memory than the 9 major spokes (Newtown, Broadway, Winchester, Richmond, Tates Creek, Nicholasville, Harrodsburg, Versailles, Leestown) and two loops. As long as the landmarks maintain stability (I don’t think UK or Keeneland will be relocated any time soon), then these could serve as a reference mechanism as reliable as the named roads.

If you have any improvements to this model, please share them in the comments!

* A more widely familiar model than Omaha may be New York City. For example, Radio City Music Hall is located on W. 54th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue.

** In particular, I’m referring to the section of interstate where I-64 and I-75 are merged, as this helps complete the Man-O-War loop. For this model, I ignore I-75 once it splits back off and heads South, as this could be confused as an additional radius demarcation.

*** Tates Creek Road was not one of the the main thoroughfares listed in my model, but is certainly a major spoke in Lexington’s road system.