The Good, Bad and Ugly UX of NYC
This summer I was lucky enough to travel to New York City for a holiday with my wife. During the break we had a wonderful time taking the Big Apple experiencing as much as the city as we could. However whilst there I couldn’t help but think about the UX across the world’s capital city.
Yes, yes, I know that that’s an incredibly nerdy thing to do, but you know what, that’s a thing that happened. So without further ado, let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly of UX in the Big Apple.
With it being over 35 degrees most days from 7am all the way through to the late evening we found ourselves in a lot of taxis getting across the city. Luckily though, getting taxis across New York was a simple, uniform experience which didn’t give us any nasty surprises. All cabs come with the option to pay for contactless, chip and pin and cash as standard with the breakdown of the costs clearly presented on a screen for the passenger. Go through a toll road? It’s added and shown. Want to add a tip? (We’ll get deeper into this in a moment...) You can choose between different options to add for your driver, leaving feedback where necessary. Yes Uber has come to New York, but the taxis in the city have stepped their game up to take them on. There’s something iconic about the yellow New York cab and it’s good to see the user experience was a positive one.
Each taxi experience was built to feel familiar in the city meaning that once you experience the yellow cab of New York once, you know what to expect for the future breeding a familiarity that puts people at ease.
There may be a small rant incoming, and yes it may be ideological but from a user perspective this is uncomfortable and annoying for all involved. Tipping. When you go to an establishment and pay for a service you expect good service, if you enjoy it you purchase again. If you do not, or don’t feel appreciated you take your custom elsewhere. If you really enjoy the service you shouldn’t feel obliged to pay an extra 15-20% for it when the cheque comes. Unfortunately it feels baked in to the US culture with no sign of it being removed. If people are in an industry where they rely on tips, surely it would be better to just raise prices overall to ensure everyone gets a strong livable wage where they can receive commendations and promotion from within? The awkward moment a server who is perfectly adequate floats around with the card machine clearly trying to angle a bigger tip is awkward and ugly for all involved. Why should I have to pay a tip to a bar worker when I’ve gone to the bar myself, stood, ordered drinks and then walked back to the seat? Ah, well.
For more on this, check out the Freakonomics podcast: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/danny-meyer/
Ugly: Welcome to JFK
After a 7 hour flight, what could be waiting for us following our disembarkment? Inspiring pictures of America? They were there, a bit faded, but there. Wifi? Nah, but, you know, maybe it’s best to wait until you get through security. A 90 minute queue to get through to baggage collection. Yep, that was there and absolutely awful. Now I know that it’s important for the US to be sure the people who are entering their country are who they say they are and I’m in no way questioning the requirements of entry and the actual process of processing entry. What was galling though was being in an un-airconditioned windowless corridor with no end in sight. The queue snaked down a long single corridor before suddenly veering to the right where we had no idea what was going on.
Except some people had an idea of what was going on. When we landed a tannoy announcement came through approximately every two minutes informing all passengers that they must collect their luggage, even if they were transferring within the airport. Interspersed among this there was a list of around 12 parties who were asked to find a member of staff for an important message about their baggage… With the queue over 90 minutes long you may come to terms with the seven stages of grief and loss within the queue before you’d even get close to the agent scanning your passport.
What could be done to improve this? Some indicator of time, progress and resolution to give ease to individuals and families whilst travelling. Often travelling has an emotional weight to it with many already tired or anxious. Anything that can be done to relieve traveller’s anxieties or increase transparency could help a tired and grim situation.
Good: It all just works!
New York has millions of people in it, be they tourists, residents or workers they all exist in the same space. Transport and infrastructure are incredibly important to the city with systems needing to interact with others with individual actors needing to navigate between them. Thankfully though, it all just works.
An example for this would be the City Pass system used for some attractions. Without a need to print out, the City Pass provides a code and a QR code which can be copied, screenshotted or downloaded as a PDF. The City Pass provides access to a pre-determined amount of attractions that customers can pick and mix as they choose. Whilst not a mind-blowing concept having experienced something similar to this in Seattle, the way that the Pass worked across multiple attractions each using their own POS in a way that didn’t require a special queue or ‘othering’ was deeply satisfying.
The City Pass was not unique in the way that things ‘just worked’ but is an illustrative example of the benefits of a good user experience, something that just fits with the intent, removing friction wherever possible.
Bad: When a dollar isn’t a dollar
Another frustrating thing that isn’t related to only New York, but more something that annoys the hell out of me across the US and Canada. Adding tax on at the checkout. McDonald’s runs a summer promotion known as ‘Dollar Drink Days’ where every soft drink is priced at $1. Hooray! You can go up to any McDonald’s ask for a Coke, exchange your crisp dollar bill and quench your need for fizzy caffeinated sugar juice. Except it never is just a dollar, it’s a dollar, plus tax. Coming from the UK where the tax is baked in to most prices, where everything in Poundland is actually one pound (I know they sell weird stuff that’s more than a pound, but you get the point) it is a bit jarring to have to add additional costs to the one you see laid out in front of you. The hidden tax added on leads to a false sense of knowing how much you’re spending.
Speaking with a Canadian friend she found the UK system confusing with her defence being “don’t you want to know how much the government is fleecing you?”. It’s an interesting mindset and approach, one completely alien to me, but something I can understand. However it prioritises the need to differentiate the costs of tax and product to the individual as opposed to serving the need of the actual user, helping them acquire the product. The UK method of printing an itemised receipt which includes tax is a much easier and simplified way of explaining costs. Whether this would be implemented in the US where each state can control taxes is up for debate, but if we live in a market-led economy anything to help user spending should be encouraged.
Ugly: Selfie Serving
As we all now have super-powerful computers in our pockets we can now take so many pictures of ourselves to prove we were in front of things, people or places. This has naturally led to some changes in the way we interact with cities. The individualistic nature was incredibly prevalent whilst in New York, not necessarily limited to barging people out of the way for the perfect selfie, more people were pushing in, taking lack of care and consideration for the people around them. Whilst I can’t condemn people striving to give themselves the best experience, what can be done is design experiences to suit the more insular and self-serving world. When theatres were designed it was unlikely that people would get up during performances, however more people need to vacate their seats during shows now so we must design the environments around those individuals to not impede others.
Flocking to 30 Rock for the magic hour to take photos, the experience could be improved by helping individuals get the views and photos they want by implementing some kind of limits to stop an aggressive throng of people push their phones, cameras and children up against the plexiglass that separates themselves from the massive drop below.
Good: An Interconnected City
The city is a living and breathing entity. It’s easy to see why New York is such an important and thriving city. Split into districts of specialisms where zones of agglomeration attract similar industries the city flows together, all the while ensuring it is a functioning city. You’re never more than a few blocks away from food, a supermarket, a pharmacy or a subway, essentials for living. Hundreds of mini-neighbourhoods link together all with their own feeling and design, all the while being distinctly New York. From the serenity of Central Park to the suits of the financial district to the culture of Chinatown the city is one.
So yes, I went on holiday and had a wonderful time, but after experiencing the Big Apple I can understand what makes it appealing to so many. The city has a mindset and confidence which it projects on to the world. There are things I would change if I could, but it was a joy to experience the city that never sleeps, even if it needs to sort out the damn airport.