UX testing for public infrastructure

An article in the Wall Street Journal documents LaGuardia Airport’s remarkable turnaround:

It’s no longer appalling. It’s actually nice. In fact, when a panel of judges recently named the world’s best new airport building, the prestigious honor went to Terminal B.

The design team ran some “clever experiments” see if things worked like intended:

One was a live trial in which hundreds of friends and relatives came to a concourse of Terminal B right before it opened in 2018. They were handed tickets for phantom flights and given instructions—grab a coffee before heading to Gate 29, say—as the ORAT experts observed their behavior and studied their feedback. When they realized that certain signage was too subtle and the loudspeakers sounded different in a bustling environment, they added splashes of color and tweaked the volume so that real passengers wouldn’t get lost.

Ditto for bathroom stalls, which are now “wide enough to open the door and roll in a bag without bumping into anything,” and baggage collection:

They collected 500 pieces of luggage in all shapes and sizes, filled them with free weights and checked the bags more than 300,000 times in total. They even conducted a “crush test” and pushed the system to its limits to make sure it was ready for anything.

In tech, we call this User Experience (UX) research, and it’s one of those high-paying software jobs that your parents have never heard of. At a previous job, I played an accessory role in our UX testing, meaning I watched and took notes as my best friend fumbled through a mockup of our platform. When he got something ‘wrong’, we treated it as a design failure and thought about how we could bring the product into line with his expectations. The reason we do this is that UX is really hard, and consumer products live or die on usability. So we have a big incentive to get it right.

A lot of public infrastructure seems to neglect this kind of work. When I was leaving the Amsterdam airport this summer, I expected a big, obvious sign saying ‘TRAINS TO CITY THIS WAY.’ But the signs were small and easy to miss, and more importantly, they named the final station the train was going to, which is meaningful to people who already know where they’re going rather than newcomers.

Likewise, when I board the 3 train to New Lots Avenue in Manhattan, I know it’s going to Brooklyn because I ride it a lot. But I’ve ridden the subway the wrong direction many times because their stated endpoints didn’t give me the context I needed.

Some stations have maps, but needing a guide is a kind of UX failure. Good user experience looks like a child picking up a video game controller for the first time and immediately figuring out how to play. Bad UX looks like tourists’ puzzling over a map in a loud, chaotic environment.

That’s why it’s refreshing to read that LaGauardia took user journeys seriously in the design process.

What levers might we pull to get other projects to follow suit?