Why Beautiful But Dumb?

Good information architecture balances a lot of competing elements: design, business needs, marketing needs, stuff the CEO wants, things the tech department wants to try out, and user needs. Without IA ,the web, and the world, tends to start drifting towards what looks cool (the beautiful part) in favor of being smart (hence the dumb part).

Monday, August 1, 2011

The NYC MTA Just Can't Get It Right, Even Though It Seems To Try Hard

Last week I did what the MTA is always telling you to do and I took the train to the plane, which is to say I  left my house at 8:30am, took two subway trains and the Air Train to JFK Airport, and just barely made my 11:00am flight.  Lately it seems that the MTA is really, really trying to take advantage of digital technology to communicate with their customers.  Yay!  But it also seems like whatever they do they just can't quite get it right.  Boo.

The first fail came as I was changing trains.  There was a long time to wait between trains, and I was with my 5 year old son, so to entertain both him and myself we spent some time reading the subway map.  This is how I came to notice what the actual words on the subway map say.  Did you know subway maps have words?  They do!  And after living in NYC for 14 years I read them for the first time last week.  It turns out I haven't been missing much.  Here's the relevant detail from the map:


My favorite part?  The bit about "click on 'Maps,' then select 'Individual Subway Line Maps'," as though subway riders are just going to whip out their phones and go to mta.info right there in the station except, whoops, there's no cell phone service in a subway station!  So the MTA must be thinking, ok, so here's what people will do: first, they'll take the train home.  Then, they'll go online, and they'll remember to click on "Maps" and then "Individual Subway Line Maps," and then they'll be able to find out information about how the trains are running on the trip they just took.  That makes sense.

So maybe the problem with the NYC subway is that it's just old.  Really, really old.  Any sometimes no matter how hard you try you just can't get a really, really old thing to work the way you want it to.  That would explain why the MTA website is housed at mta.info instead of mta.com or mta.gov.  Actually, no it wouldn't.  But it is the case that attempting to give customers digital information when they are underground with no access to a digital connection can be a challenge.  But neither of those issues should come into play with something new like the Air Train, right?  The Air Train is, a) Above ground and b) Pretty new!

So let me ask you this.  You are traveling to catch your plane.  You have spied an air train approaching the station as you swiped your card through the turnstile, have raced down the stairs, bumping your luggage along with you, and have leaped onto the departing train just before the doors close.  Now, what is the single most important piece of information you need?  Do you need to know what fun things you can do in NYC?  No, because in my case I live here and also, I am leaving town.  Do you need to know how to treat acne?  No, not so much.  What you need to know is what terminal your plane leaves from.

Here is how that information is displayed on the Air Train:


See the illegible list of small print stuff to the right of the map?  That is the list of airlines and which terminals they arrive and depart from.  I took this picture while sitting about as close as one can be sitting to the sign.  What's the big deal, you might ask?  Why don't I just walk over and look at the sign?  Well, for starters I had a suitcase and a five-year-old child in tow.  So to look at the sign meant I would have to move my entire entourage over there, ask the people who were already standing in front of the sign trying to figure out where the hell they were going to move, and then wobble precariously for a few moments as I tried to ascertain my destination.

I have this experience every single time I ride the Air Train.  I am continually surprised that it is impossible to figure out what terminal to get off at.  This is made even more surprising by the fact that in this particular Air Train there is a ton of white space that is being used for no purpose at all.  At the very least they could put a few more of these signs around the train.  You know what else could be good here, aside from a very large, clear sign in a prominent location that tells me what terminal to get off at?  How about a website?  Because in this case, I am above ground.  I am also riding the train for up to 20 minutes, which is plenty of time for me to go to a mobile website that has an interface like this:


I should be able to select my airline, get the terminal and Air Train stop returned to me, and get on with my life.  Maybe even a nice little list of stuff I can buy at that terminal.  Maybe even the gate my plane is leaving from?  What, too much?  Ok, fine.  Just tell me where I am supposed to get off the train.  That is all I ask.  Do that for me, MTA, and I will love you forever.