City Views: How Design—and Designers—Can Save Our Cities

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In looking at the problems and promise of a big city, designers see the foreground, not just the wide shot.

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In looking at the problems and promise of a big city, designers see the foreground, not just the wide shot.

Have you ever experienced confusion when registering to vote for a local election? How about anxiety with trying to pay a water bill, or uncertainty with the process of starting a small business? Well, you’re not alone. Working with and within our cities can be filled with frustration, but it doesn’t have to be.

Contrast the experience of paying for street parking with ordering an item for delivery online. With just a few clicks, the item you need is paid for and on its way to you. Imagine if the way we interacted with our cities were as intuitive as using an iPhone or as simple as placing an order on Amazon.

In an increasingly digital world, citizen expectations are changing. Cities and governments faced with growing populations and limited resources, are trying to figure out how to best use technology to make improvements. In order to make better decisions, civic leaders want to understand what value these investments might bring, whether creating efficiencies, generating revenue, or improving quality of life for people.

Enter designers

Until recently, policy makers, urban planners, and the private sector have been the primary drivers and decisions makers in our cities, often solving civic problems with a top down approach. But when designers think about civic challenges, they look at them from the street-level. Increasingly, due to the success of human-centered design practices in consumer products and services, designers are being provided with greater opportunities to influence urban developments.

Why designers? To start, design is much more than aesthetics. Rarely is a problem solved with only a visual concept. Design is the process of identifying, defining and solving the right problems for people.

Who is a designer? Designers are anyone with the ability to consider the individual and the larger system—or the individual’s context—in tandem. It is the role of design to consider how form meets function—a capability that is central to improving cities. If you approach challenges like this, you are poised to play a role in transforming cities.

Understanding people

Whether designing physical products, websites, or services, great designers place value on understanding people—their diverse needs, behaviors, and motivations—in order to shape effective solutions. In cities, that means designing to reflect the diversity and interests of all people who live in, work in, or visit the city. It means designing for people of all ages, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds—people who are well represented by the civic process, and those who have traditionally been disenfranchised.

Understanding people was a central part of designing LinkNYC, the project to replace New York City’s payphones with at least 7,500 connection points called Links. LinkNYC offers free services like gigabit speed WiFi, phone calls, device charging, and a tablet for Internet browsing and accessing city services and wayfinding. How do you understand the needs of the city’s 8.5 million residents, who speak more than 260 different languages, along with commuters and the 60 million visitors from around the world? As best you can, you want to put yourself in the position of the people you are helping. Look at the problem from a beginner’s perspective and design with them in mind. How do you go about doing that?

The LinkNYC team spent months conducting ethnographic research with a range of communities around the city, including Older Adult Technology Services, the youth empowerment organization Red Hook Initiative, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to name a few. Using simple prototypes that conveyed product features, we were able to adjust interfaces for people with lower technical aptitude.

Learning never ends. Ideas can only remain effective through ongoing understanding and testing with people. With advancements in prototyping tools, such as Invision, and online recruitment, the process of understanding people is simpler than ever before.

Making the complex simple

Designers face the challenge of making their products, websites, or services usable. Likewise, cities must provide services and touchpoints which are usable by millions of disparate people: residents, commuters, and visitors; English speakers and non; those who are technically literate and people who have never used a computer before. That means designing solutions that take the complex and make it simpler, easier to comprehend, and more approachable.

How do you offer simple wayfinding for a system as complex as the New York City subway? Beginning in 2012, we partnered with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to develop interactive touchscreens installed in stations throughout the subway system. This network of “On the Go” kiosks presented an opportunity to overlay digital technology onto a century-old infrastructure, to improve navigation while also serving advertising that would help fund the network and provide the MTA with a new revenue source.

Making complex problems simple doesn’t always require reinvention. Many of the kiosk features are improvements gleaned from observing rider habits. For example, rather than designing an entirely new subway map for the kiosks, we made slight modifications to the classic transit map, removing bus connections, adjusting colors, and reducing iconography. These minor changes made the digital map easier for riders to understand.

Delivering great experiences

People now expect effective and delightful products and services that provide value in all areas of their life. That applies to both goods and services that are directly paid for, like ridesharing services, and also in-direct, like Facebook or YouTube. These expectations are no longer limited to consumer products, but extend to the cities we live in and the services governments provide. Improving civic experiences means challenging the existing process in order to meet these rising expectations.

In fact, crowdsourcing is becoming an increasingly popular approach to generating ideas in the public sector. Take the process of filing taxes: onerous at best, prohibitively complex at worst, and stressful for nearly everyone. Recognizing the need for improvements, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is inviting the public to reimagine the taxpayer experience by designing an online experience that makes the process simpler. Participants of the challenge can access a network of mentors from both the public and private sectors–meaning you don’t have to be a federal tax expert in order to get involved. Initiatives like this are a step in the right direction to ensure our collective ideas help us get to the proper solution faster.

Conclusion: You don’t need to be a designer to think like one

Methods that are native to the design community are key to addressing ongoing challenges in cities. But anyone who can objectively facilitate discussions with people, extract insights, and bring form to ideas can play a role in civic design. That is to say, thinking like a designer is not limited to those who might not consider themselves one.

We’re in an era of rapidly changing cities. As technology continues to alter the ways in which we interact with and within cities, design approaches can play a role in shaping public services and urban experiences.

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Paul McConnell is the Design Director at Intersection, a technology and media company redefining the urban experience. Paul is creative leader who shapes the future of connected experiences in physical spaces for cities, brands, and their customers. Paul brings more than a decade of experience leading strategy, design, and technical development for a variety of products, service, and communication solutions. Paul built and leads Intersection’s team of design researchers, innovation strategists, and interaction and visual designers to deliver human-centered experiences that add value, influence behaviors, and achieve client goals. He is the co-author of the 2016 O’Reilly Media report “Designing for Cities: Technology and the Urban Experience.”