The plan to install futuristic touch screens on New York City's underground system stalled as the design team took a step back to improve the hardware. Six months overdue, the first batch is now live.
Over the last month, the first 18 MTA On the Go kiosks have been installed in the Grand Central subway station. The screens are basically huge interactive navigation centres, which serve-up real-time information about your route and destination, and what service disruptions might get in the way.
The project is a collaboration between MTA and Control Group, a local design and technology consultancy firm. Importantly, the city isn't paying for them. Control Group is footing the bill, in hopes that the kiosks will eventually pay for themselves with advertising revenue.
The initial plan for the kiosks was to populate the city's busiest stations, to help make the dynamic and often confusing system a little easier to work with. By the end of 2013, however, Control Group had only managed to install a single testing unit at Bowling Green station, near the company's headquarters. After a 30-day trial period, it was apparent that everything from the hardware to the user interface had to be improved before the units would be ready to meet the needs of millions of commuters. "We wanted a better experience," says Control Group partner Colin O'Donnell, "and we were willing to wait for it."
Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a minor course adjustment when it comes a massive agency like MTA. "It's a behemoth," says O'Donnell. Moving millions of passengers every day necessitates a certain amount of bureaucracy, and when every last person in that bureaucracy needs to sign off on a decision, approving something as simple as a hardware change can take, well, six months.
O'Donnell says that the initial run's core problem was the touch screen it had chosen. The prototype we tried last year used a surface outfitted with 3M's dispersive signal technology (DST), which calculates the position of a touch on a screen by sensing the vibrations the touch creates. It's rugged and cost-effective, but also a bit clumsy. DST screens work will for simple applications, but for more interactive experiences, it's simply not as smooth as what we've become accustomed to on our smartphones.
User testing proved that people found the firm pokes unintuitive, but more importantly it turned out that subway stations are full of vibration-causing ambient noise and rumbling trains—no kidding!—which confused the touch screen's contact microphones and drastically undermined performance. As one staffer put it, the tech worked well in Control Group's lab on the 21st street of a skyscraper, but simply didn't cut it underground with the trains rumbling by.
After considering alternatives, Control Group decided to go with a projective capacitive touch screen display, which uses a variant of the the technology in your phone while still meeting the ruggedness standards of MTA. In other words, the screens have that smooth, smartphone experience without the easy-to-break screens we've all experienced. The kiosks can be power-washed, and miscreants who would do them harm will still be up against tank-like hardware.
Besides overhauling the hardware, O'Donnell says that the 30-day trial in Bowling Green station revealed that the interface had to be streamlined so that it was intuitive even if you'd never used a touch screen before. Sure, the twenty-something designers the company interviewed about usability had no trouble—some even had thoughtful suggestions—but according to O'Donnell, some older, lower-income customers had never really used a touch screen at all in their lives.
The resulting kiosks are useful even if you choose not to interact directly with them at all. About every 10 seconds, the screens cycle to a new piece of information. First, you'll see a real-time subway train arrival estimate, or a listing scheduled departures for the Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central. Then, the screen will switch to animated safety and security announcements: If you drop something on the tracks—leave it, for example.
Walk up to the map, and a tap pulls up a draggable subway map. Tap anywhere, and it will show you the best route to get there. In a smart interface improvement over the previous iteration, the screen pulls up a familiar yellow exclamation point! triangle that tells you if your planned route is having problems.
The interface and hardware performance aren't without their hitches. The touch technology isn't totally accurate, so if you're trying to navigate to a station that happens to be near a lot of other stations, it can require a few tries to select the right one. Additionally, the software can be sluggish. Dragging the map around is choppy, and when you select a destination on the map, it takes the kiosks 4-10 seconds to show you the way. But software can be updated. The kiosks themselves are sturdy and helpful, as intended (and needed).
Touch screen systems such as discussed here would likely be a great boost to London's Underground system, more extensive access to service information may well have helped the millions affected by the tube strikes of last week. What are your experiences with public touch screens? Help or hindrance?
Photos by Michael Hession