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.
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.