Data and Details: A Review of the NYC Information Center

At a recent lecture at the Interactive Design department at SVA, Frank Chimero urged students to remember, “Design is a vessel. To be valuable it needs to hold something.” Interaction design holds content or more specifically data. In the case of the NYC Information Center, a new tourist centre featuring interactive maps of New York, it holds the attractions and events of one of the most exciting cities in the world. What possibilities! For interactive designers at Local Projects working for the Center, I imagine handling this immense amount of data was both an exciting and intimidating task. Sadly, many of these possibilities were lost or overlooked by the designers ignoring some basic principals and the smaller aspects of the project.

Since January 2009, The NYC Information Center has become multimedia centre where tourists can explore New York’s attractions on interactive map or “smart table”. The center also includes FAQ screens where the top 100 questions for tourists are answered in 10 different languages. It still functions as regular tourist office where visitors can get brochures and purchase tickets in one convenient location on the retail level of the NYC & Company tourism offices on 810 Seventh Avenue. But although the midtown location is certainly convenient for tourists, it is not an easy place to find. A small 7-inch steel sign in the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface not only looks generic but is also placed above the tall windows making it almost impossible to see.

The first thing that struck me upon entering the Center was how small the space actually was. Not only did the architects at WXY and Local Project designers have to successfully distill the life and breadth of New York City but had to attempt to do so in a small, narrow space. Why when the space is already so cramped is the interior design so clunky? The smart tables are solid white boxes with another solid white structure above them. Although not apparently obvious these are shaped into an ‘i’, “the universal symbol for information”.[1] These looming structures or “digital mirrors” create a claustrophobic atmosphere. They serve no functional purpose but light up in an array of colors depending on your activity. During both of my visits, these lights were not working making the structures look even more obsolete. The digital mirrors would have been better as glass structures as the transparency would make them look less cumbersome or by eliminating them altogether.

To create a customized guide, the visitor takes an interactive disk, reminiscent of a coaster and places it on the smart table. When the disk is on the table’s map, a surrounding circular area appears. This is essentially your selected zone. You move your disk around the table to choose the area of New York you wish to explore. From here, you can choose from a number of options – restaurants, galleries, shopping – within your selected zone. I found it surprising that there were no sub-categories within the main list of options, for example “Italian” or “French” in the ‘restaurant’ section. The results are shown in the form of large tags scattered around the map. When you see an attraction that interests you can click on the tag for a description and more information. Surprisingly, this description doesn’t always include basic information such as opening hours and prices. This is a little frustrating. You can tap on this ‘+’ sign beside the description to add the favorites to stored on the disk. The disk will save up to 30 items and you can send your custom itinerary to your cell phone or email address, or print it out to take with you.

Ian Curry, designer from Local Projects, said tourists expect a level of customization and “want their experience facilitated for exactly what they’re interested in.” Since one of their aims is to allow people to customize their own guide, there should be more categories. The data also offers the opportunity to create some custom tours depending on your interests for example “Modern Art”, “Irish-American history” or “Rock Music” tours. These customized tours could go alongside the “Free NYC” and “Ask a Local” options located in the smart table menu.

The circular area, marked out in walking-distance in minutes, can be increased and decreased. Whereas most people’s walking speed is three miles per hour, the designers cleverly reduced the walking speed for ambling tourists to two and a half miles. Generally, tourists spend most of their time on the subway with no idea of the area they passed between two places and arrive, delirious and scrambling to find which direction to go. This can leave people with little sense of place or context. This path is an excellent idea as it encourages people to walk around above ground by illustrating how much they can see by walking for a short period of time.

The “Fly Wall” screen at the back of the Center allows you to virtually soar over a three-dimensional map of the New York as it highlights the attractions you added to your interactive disk. The name of the borough is overlaid on the map and looks quite impressive.  In fact, the whole thing looks impressive; I just don’t know how well flying 600 feet overhead gives a tourist a real sense of New York. One of the biggest problems for tourists is finding North, South, East or West. What would have been more useful for tourists locating themselves would be if the orientation of smart tables actually matched up to the cardinal direction of the city itself!

The poor orientation of the tables and exclusion of sub-categories or customized tours are indicative of the Local Projects approach. The technology within the space is undoubtedly impressive. But the designers have focused too much on the large technological aspects and not on any of the micro details to the make center more accessible and user-friendly.

Manager Amit Maharaj told us, “We wanted the place to look clean and not overwhelming”. Since the streamlining design phenomenon of the 1930s, white has always been associated with cleanliness but the lack of color in the space makes it look uninviting and intimidating. Amit made a comparison to the look of the Apple Store. But an Apple store can look slick and technological because they know their target market is generally young, urban and tech-savvy. The NYC Information Centre should be catering to a much broader audience considering age, race, physical ability and technical knowledge. In many respects, the place is accessible; the FAQ walls are done in 10 languages and have a lower touch screen mode for wheelchair users. All these features are admirable but I am concerned that the center would be exclusive in other ways as many people may find the space intimidating.

The $1.8 million center is funded by advertising revenue in the form of “marketing takeovers” and membership dues from NYC tourism agency.[2] I suspect the monochrome interior may have been selected so as not to overpower whatever takeover is on any given week. The term “marketing takeover” certainly seems applicable, as the garish Mamma Mia paraphernalia had literally taken over the entire center. The front window was almost completely covered with huge sticker that prevented anyone seeing inside the store. The interactive disks had nothing but the Mamma Mia logo on them. The original disks had ‘You Are Here’ written on them, a phrase we all recognize from traditional maps. Although this may seem insignificant, the ‘You Are Here’ was essential for most people’s understanding of the smart table. These marketing takeovers damage the integrity and usability of the space when they don’t take these nuances into consideration.

I was not surprised when Amit Maharaj informed us that most visitors are walked through the entire process, as there is almost no signage or instructions. Providing reusable laminated pamphlets would mean the visitors could show themselves around the center more easily. The brochures along the walls have been organized into categories such as sights, restaurants and museums but this isn’t indicated anywhere. The Center would also benefit from labeling the FAQ walls and smart tables to distinguish them from each other. NYC & Company has a bright, distinctive brand and typographic identity using cyan, magenta and yellow. Simple signage additions in vinyl in these colors would be inexpensive and not only increase usability but would add some much needed color to the stark interior. It is also interesting to think that if the smart tables and FAQ walls themselves included all necessary information such as opening hours and prices then these additional brochures would not be needed.

The center is the first of its kind in the world. This newness is exciting, but it also causes problems, as the Center can’t learn from the shortcomings of similar institutions. Ian Curry notes, “was a lot of emphasis on having software interesting enough to carry the space”[3] And although the focus seems to be on software, there is certainly something to be said for a well-designed “vessel”. Up-to-the-minute technology still needs a comfortable, open and engaging environment. WXY architects may need to reconsider the “vessel” for this data or at the very least add some much needed signage. Greater consideration on behalf of Local Projects to the many opportunities of their data will not only make the center more exciting but more informative. Fortunately for Local Projects, most of the hardest work is now done. The NYC Information Center has so much potential but the designers seem to have got caught up in the grandiose nature of the project and failed to realize that the devil (and the data!) really is in the detail.

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