Could user interface design be a useful metaphor for our streets?

Take a walk or ride your bike in an American city or suburb. Whether on two feet or two wheels, you’ll soon realize the streets weren’t designed for you. Narrow sidewalks, some with signs and telephone poles in your path. Where any bike lanes exist, most are only painted on, sandwiching you between speeding drivers and parallel parked cars. You play Russian roulette and hope you don’t get doored.

A rideshare driver stopped in a bike lane in Chicago, while a young woman decides how to navigate around.
A delivery driver in Berkeley, CA idles in the bike lane as traffic speeds by. I stopped my bike to snap the photo.
A brand new “protected” bike lane in Cambridge, MA designed for safe, comfortable riding. It’s separated from the car lane by a row of parked cars and a curb, and separated from the sidewalk.
Credit Vision Zero Network.

If you’re new to biking thanks to shelter in place and physical distancing, you’ve likely noticed how the streets aren’t designed for you. You feel naked and exposed on two wheels as reckless, inattentive drivers speed by.

Mandela Parkway and Grand in Oakland, CA. A high-speed highway collector meets a high speed boulevard. How comfortable would you be walking or riding a bike here? Why?
It takes time and reinforcement to adjust to new traffic patterns. This “quick build” bike lane in San Jose, CA features a sign to educate drivers who would sometimes park in the new bike lane.
  • Signs, signals, lane markings, stripes, symbols, and reflectors are “signifiers.”
  • Curbs, median islands, speed bumps, posts, bollards, and barriers are “constraints.” So is the radius of a turn, which affects how fast a driver can round a corner.
  • Directional way-finding signs and arrows offer “discoverability.”
  • Drivers get tactile and auditory “feedback” from textured streets, speed bumps, gravel and yes, potholes.
This protected intersection in San Francisco, CA uses different colors of paint paint as signifiers. The flexible posts make an inexpensive constraint, guiding drivers into position to turn around the median island, and keeping them out of the bike lane. This makes crossing on foot or bike safer and more comfortable.
  1. Conduct empathy interviews on them with this excellent empathy interview guide.
  2. Test your own design, or evaluate an existing one. Look at it through the eyes of a car driver, pedestrian, bike rider, child, person with disability, or someone pushing a stroller.

So, if you’re a User Interface or User Experience Designer, you can lend your expertise to help fix our streets. And if you build streets for a living, consider adopting principles from the Design of Everyday Things to inform your work.

Please comment below and:

  • Share an example of a poor user experience on a street. Were you driving, on your bike, or walking? Pushing a stroller, using crutches, or a wheelchair?
  • Add your own perspective. How does the idea of seeing streets through a User Interface and User Experience lens resonate with you?

Building communities of the future. I like urban planning, Scandinavian design, & flying small airplanes. Former Experience Manager, LEGO IDEAS

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