Thursday, September 27, 2012

AirTrain in Vain: Good and Bad Visual Design

BART Light Rail Map: An example of good visual design.
On a recent trip to San Francisco I was confronted with side-by-side examples of excellent and awful visual design.  I needed to get from the airport to downtown San Francisco via the light rail, or BART system. After finding my way to the BART station, the light rail map was exactly what I expected. Like almost all subway and light rail maps today, it's based on the style of Harry Beck's London Underground Tube map. This style is a classic example of elegant and effective visual design. One of the few criticisms is that these maps are not always geographically accurate, but this flaw is typically far outweighed by the fact that such maps are so easy to understand.

However, getting to the BART station was another matter entirely. The signs in the airport terminal directed me to the AirTrain, where I was confronted with a dreadful map. The first thing you notice on this map is all the white space, roads, and terminal buildings. Although the geographical accuracy may be useful to some, it probably does not need to be to scale, as less empty white space would make the stuff of interest much bigger and higher in resolution. The orange and green fill on the buildings serves no purpose whatsoever, except to distract the viewer. It is pure visual noise. Is there a train on this map somewhere? Since I am on a train and would like to know where get off, that would be fitting. Eliminate the colored fill, and place the emphasis on the AirTrain route itself.

AirTrain Map: is there a train in here somewhere?
After I finally figured out that I could access the BART station from the AirTrain, the next problem revealed itself. The train line leaving the BART station is shown in a reddish/ magenta color. Anybody who's done a little research in advance knows they are looking for the yellow line, but there is no yellow line on the map. Must I get on the red line instead? It turns out that the colors on the AirTrain map have nothing to do with the lines on the BART system. I guess somebody just thought red or magenta would like nice with the orange and green terminal buildings.

I confirmed this suspicion with a passerby and had about 10 minutes to kill before the next yellow line train arrived, so I decided to wander around the station and stretch my legs. That's when I came across another AirTrain map even more bewildering than the first one. Note the Zaxxon-style isometric projection of the AirTrain and terminals. Confused? Then just drop your eyes a little to the detailed top views and side view, where you can count the number of steps on each escalator and find the location of the nearest trash can. What is the purpose of this map? My theory is that it was drawn by a first year drafting or architectural student and placed in the station as a prize for getting the highest grade on the project.

Anybody up for a game of Zaxxon?
The entire purpose of visual display of information is to improve understanding beyond what can be conveyed with words. In these examples the BART light rail map does exactly that, while the AirTrain maps fall way short. They may actually create confusion and decrease understanding, which is the antithesis of good visual design. Map making is one of the oldest forms of graphical design, and great examples of professional maps surround us. It's perplexing how the maps for a key transportation link in a major metropolitan area could have missed this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Product Managers Can Learn From Babies and Toddlers

A recent, wonderful article at about Fisher-Price made me ask myself, "From a product manager's perspective, are babies and toddlers the ultimate user?" Let me explain. Fisher-Price is an 83 year old company that started out selling painted, wooden blocks for kids to play with. They have managed to stay successful and relevant through a delicate balance of adopting new trends and technology, and sticking to their roots. Among other things, the article describes Fisher-Price’s PlayLab proving ground for new products, where employees simply observe the way babies and parents play.

As product managers we are charged with being the voice of the market and being in tune with what users need and are willing to pay for. To know what potential customers want and will buy, we can simply ask them, but experienced product managers know this only gets you so far. People answer the questions you ask them; not the ones you don't ask them. They often tell you what they think you want to hear. Occasionally they lie. A good facilitator can sometimes break through these barriers and extract the truth, but it gets harder as the products, features, and solutions become more disruptive. This is particularly true for technology products. Potential customers will reliably tell you they prefer the white BMW over the green one, but try asking them about BMW's iDrive system when they've only used old, analog, discrete controls and it's a whole different scenario. Good luck with that.

To outwit our users, we product managers take a different tact. We don't ask them what they want; we watch them. We experience their worlds, understand what frustrates them, and try to gain insight into product gaps that force them to a work-around, substitute, or completely different product. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." Armed with these observations, our development teams will come up with clever ways to address the problems.

This takes us back to Fisher-Price. When the users are babies and toddlers, there is no choice other than simply observing them. No questions to ask, and no answers to lead them to. You're forced to see what makes them tick and what frustrates them in a pure, unfiltered way. Does this make them the ultimate end-user? Perhaps.

Next time you visit a customer for a day-in-the-life-of visit, take a page from Fisher-Price's book: imagine your user in diapers, bring along some Goldfish crackers, and keep your mouth closed.