Cities as Applications

On my brief hop through London and Paris, I started thinking about the idea of touristic usability. Isn’t that an awesome term? It’s got eight syllables and I just made it up.

Aside from being a mildly absurd extension of our professional design vernacular, there’s actually a real idea behind this phrase: given any new city, there are certain things that should be easy for tourists to comprehend without assistance.

These things might include: how and when to use the subway or bus, how and where to buy fares for public transportation, how to make a call at a public telephone, how and where to flag a taxi, what to expect upon entering and leaving the airport, how and where to find postal services, how and where to find a police station, et cetera.

Of course, these are things you can find in any decent tourist’s guide, and any sensible traveler will pack such a book. But it struck me, while muddling through my first trip to London in seven years (and even, to an extent, on my third visit to Paris in less than twenty-four months), that these are things that should be inherently usable, as well.


That is, these matters shouldn’t require guidebooks. They just shouldn’t. Even if you bought one, you don’t always have it with you.

Rather, they should be easily intuited — through signage and findability — by sensible people who have some passable familiarity with a city’s primary or secondary languages. If you’ll forgive the absurd conceit, what I mean is that it might be helpful for a tourist to look at a given destination much in the same way as we look at an application: not as individual pieces of functionality and services, but as a unified bundles of features.

Here’s an example: my unilaterally uncooperative, CDMA-based American mobile phone gets no service in Europe, and I found myself desperately trying to figure out how to make a call from a public phone at ten o’clock Friday night on the streets of Paris. It’s a lovely city, but one of its enraging usability deficiencies is the fact that pay phones do not accept coins — or any kind of cash, for that matter.

To call anyone anywhere from these phones, you must possess a calling card, which must be bought at newsstands or other convenience vendors. But I had no way of intuiting that from any of the instructional signage presented with the pay phones, and no guidebook, and therefore no other recourse. It was supremely frustrating and had the feeling of a tremendous gap in someone’s municipal planning. For me in that moment, it reflected poorly — on all of Paris, not necessarily on the Parisian telecommunications infrastructure alone.

Head-to-Head Usability

So we could measure these kinds of services on a case-by-case basis, of course, and it would be relatively straightforward to do so. But it doesn’t make much sense to tell a potential tourist that Paris is wonderful, just beware that the public pay phones can be difficult to use. Information doled out in such a manner seems easily dismissible in isolation, but it can be rendered much more valuable, I think, when measured in aggregate. That is, it should be easy to compare how usable, on the whole, London is in relation to Paris, based on a canonical understanding of those few, core services that can be very critical for tourists.

Or, to return to the conceit of my software metaphor, it should be possible to understand how easy are the most basic features of a city for novice users to use? This is information that can serve as a small but not insignificant factor in deciding when and where to spend those two weeks of vacation time your boss has allowed you. Travel industry take note: here’s a way to win more of my hard earned American dollars.

Putting the Heat in Heathrow

Figuring out how to make a phone call in a foreign city is like a day at a beauty spa, though, compared to trying to leave the United Kingdom through London Heathrow Airport on Monday afternoon. Imagine the crazy, every-person-for-herself circus of any post-apocalpytic science fiction film, and you have something like the experience of being one of hundreds of misdirected, overheated and frustrated travelers passing through that airport’s many onerous and arbitrary security measures.

We’re living in a time of continually declining customer experiences within the boundaries of any port of embarkation, with basic civil rights progressively surrendered, year after year, in the name of security. If this trend in the inhumanity of airport security can be considered an art form, then I feel as if I’ve just experienced the Duchamp of the movement, now having passed through that hellish gateway. London is good, but Heathrow is a very, very poor case in touristic usability.

There. I just wanted to get that off my chest, because I’ve got a blog and, sometimes, complaining is what blogs are for.

  1. If there could be some sort of remedy to these flaws in the tourist experience that remain in physical space, perhaps it would be graffiti. Very few urban citizens are as inclined to discourse and dialogue as New Yorkers – I’ve seen conversations about Cy Twombly on several torn advertisements in the train stations. Ji Lee also comes to mind.

    Now I can appropriately link back to Duchamp, who made work out of graffiti, and the process of experiencing art forms.

    City walls and sidewalks are, in a few ways, mini blogs where people can also complain.

  2. I’m wondering: was this more of a language issue? In other words, was the information at the phone booth that you needed, but only in French? (Assuming, of course, that you don’t speak French).

    I mean… imagine trying to explain to a person who doesn’t speak English and is new to North America how to successfully hail a cab in Manhattan strictly via signage. Not impossible, but I would imagine it would be a tricky design problem.

    Tourists are inherently fleeting, temporary customers of a city, so while (like a good application) there needs to be some intuitiveness to performing basic things in a city, I would think the overarching goal of a city is work for its dedicated users: its long-term inhabitants.

    If I’m going to pound this cities-as-software metaphor into the ground, I would more look at cities as being like operating systems — while open to newbies, they are best used by dedicated users. There are simple parts and complex parts, things that can be intuited through experience with other operating systems (i.e. other cities), and seemingly endless ways to arrive at the same destination. But each one has its own individual wonkiness.

    Perhaps Paris is, to a North American, like using Linux for the first time after being a life-long mac user.

  3. You are not far off the mark. Social spaces and interface design stretch way back through the history of architecture. I am reading ‘A Pattern Language’ and ‘The Timeless Way of Building’ by Christopher Alexander. A lot of the material in these books was adopted early on by programmers as a means to organize our relationship with information. It is very good stuff!

    Reading this made me wonder if this frustration is a product of our times. Or maybe the details havent been refined because the people in charge weren’t aware that those details mattered.

    I am giving the French and the British a very forgiving stance here… We live in New York. It is hard to get worse than the MTA.

  4. To use a phone booth in Paris, you also have the possibility to use your credit card instead of a calling card (assuming two facts: that you’ve got a credit card, and that it’s either a Visa or a MasterCard).

  5. Of all the airports I use, I find Heathrow the easiest and the best.

    Although if I think about it, that probably only is from passing through security and onwards, and not so much before. But once you are through security I think Heathrow beats most US and EU airports. Not that I have used them all.

    As for tourists, do you design your city for the 10 million people who live their? So that’s say 365x10mil man weeks of people. Or the tourists who are say just their for a week, the which would only be say 10 million man weeks?

    Like for example whilst I can see your frustration with phone box’s, I can also see why it’s occurred. Since cell phones have become so common place, the use of phone boxes has dropped dramatically. So their is no way to recoop the costs of old phone boxes where you needed staff to go round and collect the money. So it’s either take out the phone boxes or put in a system, that is lower cost.

    I totally agree with you that cities should be more tourist friendly. But surely they should just be easier to use for those people who use them the most. There is a certain amount of self-education the users or in this case travellers are responsible for too. Many American cities or places need you to be able to drive. If you are a tourist who can’t drive is this the fault of the city or the tourist.

    That all said, the French Metro I still find the most confusing system in the world.

  6. Funny, I’ve been living in Paris since August, and I hadn’t noticed that the pay phones don’t take change. Mostly because I bought a cell phone when I got here, which carries with it the added complexity of finding a tabac that sells minutes from your service provider.

    I do think the metro is much more usable than the tube though. Better coverage of the city, and the fun Hector Guimard art nouveau entrances.

  7. Neil: I don’t think it’s just a function of language, though I do think language is a big factor. One of the criteria for assessing a city’s overall usability might be how easy it is for someone who doesn’t speak the primary language to get along, with the understanding that such a visitor wouldn’t be able to understand everything.

    Still, while in London, I had a devil of a time figuring out the bus map, and how to buy fares to ride both the bus and the subway. If you somehow manage to decode the fact that the best way to get around is with an Oyster card, you’ll be saving as much as half off each fare. With tube rides at £4 each (nearly US$8!), that’s a pretty significant gap. And this was all in English.

    Régis: I did figure out that you can use a credit card in those phones, but it took some persistence. The phones expect users with credit cards to be making overseas calls, and not domestic calls. Some of my MasterCard-funded attempts to phone numbers in metropolitan Paris worked, and others didn’t.

    Adrian: You make excellent points about designing for novice v. expert users of a city. I would argue that by designing for novices, you’re creating better experiences for experts, but then I generally say that most user services could be improved. (That’s why I’m in this industry!)

    But, I would add that what I’m talking about here is assessing this usability, not necessarily demanding its immediate improvement. Let’s take your example of coin-based pay phones not being economically viable (and setting aside what I perceive as a French aversion to handling cash in general). And let’s say that situation is a given that won’t change. Fine. What I’m saying is that it would be helpful to flag such realities to potential visitors as useful information. Doing so will help tourists better prepare for trips, and it may also have the effect of spurring cities to improve their overall ratings.

  8. Ok I see your point and largely agree.

    Often the information is there, you just need to know where to look. The problem is the people who make the information available know where it is, so don’t really think about how someone who doesn’t know where to look for it needs to look.

    For example when I want a tube map in London I just grab one in any tube station as they are all over the place and easy to pick up a they can be take from a plastic holder on the wall.

    After complaining after several trips to NY that there are no decent subway maps, I was told all I needed to do was ask one of the people in glass boxes at a station. Up until then I didn’t even know they were available.

    So in agreement with you, perhaps it’s not necessarily the systems that need to improve, as much as access to information about how the systems work.

    Like the London bus maps. I find the spider maps incredibly easy to use. But I can see how until you have used them 3 or 4 times, you might find them very confusing.

    Perhaps what we need is or some such.

  9. Interesting post. I’m all for a usability assessment. Surely someone’s done this already… ? Maybe not!

    I’ve also just returned from London — my second trip in 12 months. The first time, I was at the mercy of the phone boxes, which are (somewhat) readily available and do take change, but still a pain in the ass to use. They’re often broken, sticky or someone’s home. So this second time I bought a cheap cell phone on and had it shipped to a friend staying in London. I arrived, picked it up, charged up the phone card that came with it (easily done — minutes could be purchased at any Boots and many corner shops), and found myself free of phone booths… for roughly $60 (phone was about 20 pounds and I used about 10 pounds of minutes). I now have a phone and number for when I return. Can’t recommend this enough (though, as Alex said, finding a tabac in Paris to top up your minutes might be more of a challenge).

    I like the localsguide wiki idea. When I travel I cobble that info together from various magazines (ex. Budget Travel always has tons of useful tips, regardless of how much money you have to burn), travel forums (ex. Lonely Planet) and reference sites (Wikipedia is surprisingly handy) — would be so much easier to have things centralized.

  10. Appropos of Adrian’s point, I remember hearing that the design of NYC’s MetroCard machines had to strike precisely the same balance: between (a) supporting tourists who need to learn how to use the machine almost 100% of the times that they actually use one, and (b) supporting residents, who learn it the first two or three times they use it and then, over the next 500 times they use it, usage becomes almost second nature.

    Also, a big part of urban usability is, of course, the city plan: for example, NYC’s grid system is hugely helpful in getting tourists to where they need to go (although it’s shocking to me how often people will, say, be standing on 23rd street and ask me which way to 26th street!). Most European cities, on the other hand, have few discernable “systems”, and even the most savvy tourist clutches their Plan de Paris par Arrondissement as if it were their only oxygen supply.

    Another term for what you’re thinking of, Khoi, is the term “affordances

  11. A user uses, a tourist tours… “tourability”?

    At any rate, great post. I just returned from a week in London, and I was amazed at how easily I got around (after discovering the Oyster Card), though I avoided the busses altogether.

    Heathrow, on the other hand… I dunno: it felt like a meatpacking plant. Though I will say that the waiting room metaphor in the terminal I used is BRILLIANT! I loved that we weren’t all huddled around our gates… but were asked to come to the gate at just the right moment.


  12. Christopher, I agree that the city plan aids “urban usability,” but on more of a macro level. It’s helpful to know how the city is organized, but not if you can’t find a cab, grok the bus system, buy a metro ticket, etc.

    Speaking of NYC, the grid is great but it’s always bothered me that the addresses don’t correspond to the grid! Chicago’s got the opposite problem — we have addresses that make sense (1600 is four blocks north of 1200) but our streets are generally not named accordingly.

    Salt Lake City, on the other hand… (veering off-topic now)

    Anyway, great post, Khoi. Fascinating stuff.

  13. The simplest and best subway orientation system I’ve seen, BTW, is Tokyo’s, at least in a few stations.

    At each exit, a large-format photograph shows the passenger what they’ll see at the top of the stairs, in the direction they’ll actually be facing when they get there.

    The system is so ingenious and so effective that I cannot imagine why this isn’t done everywhere.

  14. John: funny you should mention Salt Lake City… I live there, and people _still_ don’t get it. It’s far more regimented than people are used to. I love it, but newbies scratch their heads until you say “Temple Square is zero-zero”. Then my address of 300 West 300 South makes perfect sense: three blocks south and three blocks west of Temple Square.


    Adam: that sounds ingenious… I also like, though, how London (among others) have overhead shots of the neighborhood with key buildings and all the station exits marked.

  15. Guess my hometown wouldn’t come out of this particularly well. Edinburgh Scotland. Supposedly the originator of the grid system way back in the early 1700’s but only for about 1% of the city!

    No subway, no trams (though that’s meant to change), just cars and buses with ingeniously complex directions to everywhere, habitually changing one way systems, and streets which keep changing their names for no apparent reason. Lovely stuff.

    I’d advise the cab. Except that fares cross Б10 ($20) in a matter of minutes. Cycling is an option if you’re aggressive and/or crazy. I use it myself and curse the completely unenforced bike lanes daily. The bumps, scratches and buckles on my hapless bike at least seem to put the thieves off.

    All that said, it’s not really a bad town. Just totally unusable compared to what Edinburgers find out on holiday. London is at least rigorous at enforcing its Ken Livingstone diktats, New York is blissfully sensible when it comes to directions, and even crazy old Naples has a certain labyrinthine charm once you get the hang of it and its comparatively cheap taxis.

    Most Edinburgh tourists keep themselves to the Old Town and New Town (the two oldest districts on either side of the castle) which leads me to my conclusion. This place’s saving grace is being fairly small!

  16. Let’s face it 90% of graphic design is really ‘Marketing Design’. There are next to no firms in the area of information graphics in the public enviroment (unless you are in the Netherlands I’m betting !) as Govt’s just don’t hire people for it. And let’s face it to design firms it isn’t regarded as lucative work.

    Personally I think design firms and especially design organisations should be forced to do public design projects on a rotating basis or as a permanent 5% of their yearly output. Good public design is vital to the lifeblood of a city and its people.

  17. I’ve often thought about this myself, whenever I’ve arrived back in Dublin when I’ve been on holiday. Here, you often see confused people waiting for buses outside the airport and a variety of services are on offer which is highly confusing. Add that to the fact that buses only accept coins and there’s no ticket dispenser and there’s a large problem.

    Directing people simply to a single dedicated service would be much simpler for tourists, while allowing locals and more adventurous people to try the normal local bus service.

    I think generally the idea of a city being geared towards tourists is a good one, but outside of the bounds of the airport I think there’s rarely a person or organisation with enough power to implement something across such a large array of services.

    Though, if you could get the airport and public transport system setup right, you’d save people a whole load of trouble.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.