New York subway riders first were promised futuristic touchscreen wayfinding maps a year ago. But the plan to install the futuristic infrastructure stalled as the design team took a step back to improve the hardware. Six months overdue, the first batch is finally live in Grand Central Station. They were worth the wait.
Over the last month, the first 18 MTA On the Go kiosks were installed in the Grand Central subway station. Eight of them are split between the uptown and downtown sides of the major 4/5/6 north-south arteries; the other 10 are scattered throughout the mezzanine above that connects the subway to the century-old commuter rail station. (Expect a wider roll out to more stations by the middle of the year.) The screens are basically huge interactive navigation centers, which serve real-time up information about how to get where you're going, and what (inevitable) 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 across from City Hall. 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 touchscreen 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 will work for simple applications, but for more interactive experiences, it's simply not as smooth as what we've become accustomed to on our smartphones. I recall that when I tried out Control Group's prototype, I had to give the thing a thud or fingernail flick before it would register the input.
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 touchscreen's contact microphones and drastically undermined performance. As one staffer put it, the tech worked well in Control Group's lab on the 21st floor 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 touchscreen 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.
I took a short ride uptown from our office to check out the revamped screens, and my initial impression is that the wait for the redesign was unquestionably worth it. The new kiosks register very light touches. As you can see in the video above, it's a really intuitive and familiar gesture that falls somewhere between the light tap of an airline check-in kiosk and the firm jab you use at the ticket machines in all MTA stations.
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 touchscreen 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 touchscreen 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.
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 foibles. 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).
Or I should say, the kiosks are there to help, assuming people know how to use them and that they exist. When I visited the kiosks yesterday, all the trains were a mess because the track signaling system on the the 1/2/3 line was having a conniption. I plotted directions from Grand Central to 125th street in Harlem, and sure enough, the kiosk informed me that there were problems. But a little later, as I was standing near a kiosk upstairs in the subway station's mezzanine, a lost woman asked me how to get to the A train. The map would know better, but it's not entirely clear what it's there for unless you know going in.
It's not fair to trust people's interactions with the touchscreen kiosks because they've only just launched, and all technology, no matter how good, takes time to catch on. Surely, touchscreen MetroCard vending machines we confusing at first, and now most New Yorkers can blaze through the screens with ease.
But judging from what I could see over about 45 minutes in a station yesterday, the kiosks are a long way from serving everybody. As I walked around the station, people would blaze by the steel towers to the decrepit paper maps behind glass and week-old station advisories. Those that did notice the screens admired them from a distance, as though they were observing a subterranean monolith. After seeing me play with one, a few people gave it a shot themselves, to varying degrees of success. At one machine by the ticketing kiosks, I loitered too long while testing out the advanced navigation, and a lady asked me to please hurry up. She wanted to buy tickets.
Photos and video by Michael Hession