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.

It’s so common you don’t think about it. We accept car-centric streets as a fact of life. When there’s a conflict with someone else on the road, we channel anger at the person. What about the way the streets themselves are built that allowed the behavior? What about the people and organizations who designed and built the street? Pointing your finger at someone right in front of you might feel vindicating in the moment, but the root cause of the conflict persists.

You could be driving down the street when your lane disappears with little warning. Whoa! You’re merging into the car next to you. They honk, you get spooked, and swerve. Or the Uber driver stopped with his flashers on in the bike lane forces you to ride into fast moving traffic to pass. You might blame yourself for missing the lane merge, but the Uber driver was an entitled jerk for stopping in the bike lane.

Now you’re home from your ride.

You can’t figure out how to make the app on your phone do what you want. It crashes before you can save your work.

ARRGH. Who do you blame? Yourself? The app?

Or the person who designed something hard to use that wasted your time? We chalk that up to a poorly designed user interface that gave you a bad user experience. And we intuitively know there’s a person who could have done a better job building it.

Same with our streets.

Look back at those driving and biking stories. Think of them as a result of poorly designed interfaces (streets), that created a bad user experience for you and the others. If there were more signs and markings, would you have merged sooner? Or if the bike lane was up on the curb next to the sidewalk instead of on the street, the stopped driver wouldn’t have endangered you. You wouldn’t have even noticed them as you comfortably pedaled by, safe from the whizzing traffic thanks to a curb and a row of parked cars.

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.

Our streets are user interfaces. So are our sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and streetscapes. Professionals refer to these together as the “built environment.”

Whether you’re walking, riding a bike, or driving a car, you’re using the interface.

How you use these interfaces (the built environment) and how others use them, makes up your “user experience.”

Street design shapes your behavior, your safety, and your comfort.

That’s what’s behind the Vision Zero movement that began in Sweden in the 1990s. Vision Zero sees traffic deaths as preventable, taking a systems approach over individual responsibility. Several US cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have adopted their own Vision Zero programs.

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?

Looking at streets through the lens of User Interface (UI) Design, a subset of User Experience (UX) Design shows us that design affects behavior. The driver stopped in the bike lane may have broken the law, but the street designer put the bike lane on the street.

In recent years, you’ve probably seen more striping on roads and green lanes for bicycles. Paint alone doesn’t stop drivers from infringing on the bike lane. So, some bike lanes have white flexible posts to keep drivers out.

These new designs and traffic patterns can be confusing to people not used to them. From a bicyclist or pedestrian perspective, the lanes and crosswalks are an improvement. From a driver perspective, it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to go.

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.

We’re making progress toward streets that account for people on foot and bike. Still, more needs to happen. Consider looking at our streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes through a new lens, the lens of a user experience designer. Apply time tested principles from Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things to streets as a user interface. Know that the street communicates with its users; the way it is built affect peoples’ behavior. In this language:

  • Smooth pavement and sidewalks are “affordances” that allow driving, biking, and walking.
  • 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.

How might adjusting these elements affect user behavior? Behavior like speeding, reckless driving, rolling through crosswalks, standing in a bike lane, or whether a driver stops for someone crossing the street.

  1. Consider users as different “personas,” another UX term. In this case, it’s drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists of various ages, genders and levels of ability.
  2. Conduct empathy interviews on them with this excellent empathy interview guide.
  3. 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.

These examples only scratch the surface. But they show that user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design is a useful useful lens through which to think about our streets, sidewalks, and bike routes. Experienced UI/UX designers and human-centered design practitioners have all the necessary tools to transform spaces so they’re designed for everyone. This simple shift gives new language and tools to identify and rank necessary changes to put people first on our streets.

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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