Streets are user interfaces. Swap road rage for empathy using Personas.

Are you a lead foot or a careful driver? Do you boldly cross the street, or do you timidly wait and make eye contact with drivers? When there’s no bike lane, do you confidently take the car lane, or the sidewalk?

No judgement, unless you’re the lead foot.

In my last piece, I applied the lens of user interface design and user experience to something most people do every single day: walking, riding, or driving down the street. Streets, sidewalks, bike paths, and intersections are user interfaces. Start to see the built environment through this lens. Then you can apply User Experience (UX) and Human Centered Design principles to imagine improvements.

People casually walk and bike across the harbor in Copenhagen, on a bridge built for walking and riding.

I was a reckless driver once.

When I got my drivers’ license, I’d gun the engine and slam on the brakes, even between stop signs. I’d weave lanes and get angry at other drivers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. I felt entitled.

Fast forward twenty-ish years. Living in a city means I rarely drive. But when I do, I’m deliberate, predictable, and follow the speed limit on residential streets. My phone is away. I save the left lane for passing, and take great care around people on bikes and walking. At 38, you could mistake me for someone twice my age.

What changed?

Day to day, we’re mostly in our own heads, thinking only of our own needs and emotions. On autopilot, it’s easy to discount other people you encounter on the roads. They share the same rights to public space and personal safety as you do. I broadened my perspective and developed empathy after a few pivotal experiences and years of reflection:

  1. I had a few minor fender benders. Two were with other cars and a couple others solo. This peeled my eyes open to the consequences of my behavior and its affect on other people and property.
  2. While stuck in traffic on Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway, I listened to the audiobook Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. The book challenged everything I thought I knew about driving and traffic. It was my first introduction to the idea of traffic as a wave and the notion that narrower lanes are safer than wide ones.
  3. When I moved downtown Chicago, I started walking and riding my bike to get around. I felt firsthand how dangerous reckless driving was. Following the Golden Rule, I couldn’t continue driving like an asshole.
  4. Work took me to Denmark several times a year. As I acclimated, I fell in love with how orderly Danish streets were. How it felt safe to walk on well marked and lit crosswalks. How everyone rode bikes calmly, in all weather and in everyday clothes, on a network of bike lanes protected from car traffic and with their own traffic signals. I took this new perspective back home and futilely tried to explain it to Americans who had never experienced it themselves.
A quiet street in Copenhagen, with priority for people walking and biking.

My perspective changed when I changed how I got around, took in new inputs from books and new places, and reflected on what I learned. That exposure left me with no choice but to step outside my earlier assumptions and biases.

Oh, and my teenage angst wore off.

Creating Personas to build empathy.

How might you also gain the benefits of new perspectives, even if you don’t change how you get around? By using Personas, one of the fundamental tools of Human Centered Design.

Conflicts on the streets lead to crashes, which lead to injuries and deaths. Think of your near misses. What were you doing? What was the other person doing? It’s well established that street design affects people’s behavior. Therefore, unsafe streets present a design challenge. The first step to any design challenge is understanding the users. You need to develop a deep empathy for them and their goals.

Personas are fictional characters that help design practitioners understand “users’ needs, experiences, behaviors, and goals.” They add dimension to other types of users whose behavior might conflict with your goals for using the system. They answer the question, “who uses the street, why, and how?” By crafting personas, you can empathize by imagine yourself in their shoes.

The three dimensions of street user personas: Task, Mode, and Ability

Each person using the street fulfills these three dimensions:

  • A task or a goal, like going to work, running errands, or getting exercise.
  • A mode of transportation (on foot, bike, scooter, wheelchair, motorcycle, car, truck, bus).
  • A set of physical and cognitive abilities. Are they able bodied or disabled? Are they alert or impaired?

You can quickly generate personas by combining the dimensions into a one-line description. Feel free to shift the order around, just remember to include TASK, MODE, and ABILITY. For example:

  • An able-bodied teenager driving his car to school.
  • A parent dropping their kids at elementary school on their electric cargo bike.
  • An elderly woman walking to the park with her cane.
  • A delivery driver with a knee brace making deliveries in his van.

Add context, conditions, and emotions. Are they rushed, distracted, happy, sad, nervous, or excited?

  • An able-bodied teenager driving his car to school. He’s exhausted and nervous from staying up late to cram for his biology final.

Use My Street User Persona Generator

You can use this simple Street User Persona Generator to create random personas based on a list of tasks, modes, and abilities. Many will be useful. Some might be nonsensical. Experiment with building personas and fleshing them out. How many different kinds of road users can you imagine, that you didn’t think about before?

Thanks to Joe Germuska for the base Glitch app that I modified, and Valerie Aurora for links to resources on language around disabilities.

Empathize

You’ve made a few personas. Now imagine yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself how you would experience the street if you were them? What behaviors or modes does the street enable? Which ones does it discourage?

Walk, scoot, or bike the same route you normally drive. Bring a young child or an elderly parent. How safe and comfortable does the street feel when you’re not sitting in a car?

Reflect on your physical abilities. We’re all one injury away from being temporarily or permanently disabled. Many of us will lose some physical abilities as we age. Some advocates say that any able-bodied person is only temporarily abled, so we’re designing for our future selves.

Now that you’ve explored different types of road users and empathized with them, you can see where our streets don’t serve their needs. How could your street be safer and more comfortable for people on foot and bike?

I’d love to hear from you. A couple questions:

  • What’s your favorite persona, and what did you learn from imagining yourself in their shoes?
  • What tasks, modes, or abilities could I add to the generator?

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

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