Why Does Interaction Design Matter? Let's Look At The Evolving Subway Experience

Frog's Robert Fabricant dissects the ways that credit-card swipes work in New York's subway system, and finds an object lesson in user interface design.

I will never forget moving to Brooklyn 15 years ago, long before it became the land of bushy-bearded hipsters. My wife and I spent our first night walking around the super-sized suburban grocery store at the end of our block like creatures from a different planet. The market contained wide aisles that you would never find in Manhattan as well as an eclectic cross-section of foods that reflect our polyglot Park Slope neighborhood, from Caribbean to Kosher. And you could check out with the simple swipe of a debit card. Today that same checkout terminal has four different forms of input: in addition to the "swipe" there is a stylus, touchscreen, and keypad, each of which must be used in sequence to buy a quart of milk. They have recently added self-service checkout stations and parking meters that bristle with an even richer set of input mechanisms, from bar code readers to pressure sensors.

Our world is get instrumented, augmented, and enhanced at a stunning rate. Digital displays, touchscreens, and sensors are blooming on even the most mundane surfaces from laundry machines to taxicabs. Each of these interfaces seem to have an internal logic that is not self-evident. It is like they are speaking slightly different languages from each other. In addition, we all carry personal devices that can download apps in an instant, providing another set of on-demand interfaces to the world. While we should feel a greater sense of control over these interfaces, since we downloaded them ourselves, it usually feels the other way around—with all of these different apps vying for our attention at once.

[An exploration of ways to revolutionize the credit-card swipe, by Chris Woebken]

In the 1400's the printing press gave rise to an age of enlightenment and graphic design arose with it. We still live with many of the conventions that were born at that moment. Concepts like "leading" to describe the vertical space between lines are still with us today. Similarly, the industrial age gave rise to industrial design. Now, as we face a new era in which many of our daily routines and communications are mediated through a stunning array of instrumentation, interaction design (IxD) is rapidly emerging as the quintessential design practice of our time.

Interaction design is most closely associated with our virtual lives, everything we do through the magical screens of our laptops, iPads, and smartphones. Many of the concepts and methods of IxD emerged out of the practice of software development, in the same way that "leading" emerged from the commercial printing press. But as we encounter more complex systems in our daily lives, from mass transit to personal finance, the potential application of IxD has broadened considerably. After all, it is usually human interfaces that shape the way we see, understand, and converse with these systems, whether through ATMs, printed banking statements, or customer service calls.

At the heart of IxD is the concept of "feedback" in its many forms, from digital or analog. Let’s start with a simple example: the NYC metrocard. It is hard to think of a more signature NY interaction than the infamous "swipe." It is like a secret handshake that grants you permission to explore the engine room of this great city. I am old enough to remember the era of tokens. The sound of the token clicking into place provided an essential piece of feedback just as you leaned into the turnstile. This was no trick of design magic, just a nice side effect of the mechanism in the old turnstiles. But you never got that rude surprise—the "thunk!"—to tell you, and everyone around you, that you hadn’t yet mastered the swipe. I have watched my kids try to learn the swipe and the pained expressions on their face when the met with the hard reality of an immovable metal turnstile. Ugh! There is feedback in the new turnstiles, of course in a variety of displays. But who ever looks at them?

Feedback is as central to interaction design as form is to industrial design. Feedback not just to support individual moments and actions. Feedback that fills in the larger picture of an overall system, like the MTA, and how we can, and should, interact with it. The challenge for my kids is not just learning the swipe. It is learning the subway system as a whole with its many layers. How much time to leave to get where they are going? How to connect between different lines? Where to stand on the platform? Which trains are the most reliable? How to interpret the ridiculous signs about service changes? This last issue has been a bedeviling one for the system. The MTA just rolled out new set of posters for communicating route changes and advisories. These posters were created by a decent graphic designer with little understanding of interaction design. The information is well organized on the page, but poorly organized over time.

There have been some remarkable improvements in the way we can interact with the subways over the last decade, and gain feedback to better understand how the system works. This process started with the much-heralded Metrocard vending machines designed by Antenna in 1999 and has been extended to the design of the subway cars with new dynamic displays and the recent addition of signs indicating expected arrival times for trains. The success of these enhancements is cumulative as they work together to make the overall system easier to interact with. I can now see the arrival sign at my station on Houston Street before I swipe, letting me know if the 1/9 is coming soon (or I can switch to the C/E two blocks away on Spring Street). In each case these enhancements overlay effectively onto the existing infrastructure. These improvements are not disruptive the way the "swipe" still is. Even an old hand like me gets rejected a few times a year. No swipe is perfect.

But here is the question: If you were giving out awards for the best examples of interaction design, would the MTA get one—and for what: The signature swipe? The metrocard vending machines? The dynamic signage system in the trains and the stations? Or all of the above? How would you call out one part of the system when they work together to improve the overall experience—to make the subway easier to interact with for millions and millions of people each day? And who gets the credit if the MTA started making its subway data available to third parties so that people can figure out new ways to interact with the system? In fact, the best example of interaction design might be new apps like Exit Strategy that let you know where to stand on the platform so that you are in the right position to exit the train at your destination. This is the quintessential app for New Yorkers, in my humble opinion. I will never forget my father teaching me where to stand on the 86th Street platform of the B train (the BB at that time) when I got my first job out of college so that we could exit together at 42nd street. He also taught me the special way to fold the New York Times so that you can read it while standing (a lost art in the age of the iPad).

If interaction design plays such a critical role in our lives then it’s time that we got our act together. We can’t just point to the latest Apple product and nod our heads. Every company that I work with, from GE on down, is trying desperately to hire qualified interaction designers, yet most of their employees haven’t a clue what interaction designers do. We need to close that gap and start agreeing on what makes interaction design "good" or "meaningful"—and communicate that back to people in ways they will care. This year IxDA launched the Interaction Design Awards to do just that—to create a platform that focuses purely on this new practice in all its forms. As head of the jury I will be gathering some incredible minds in NY in mid-November to address these questions head-on. Our goal is not to just select some great examples, but to conduct a broader conversation about the role and purpose of this new practice, with Co.Design covering throughout.

The Interaction Awards is a global competition, designed to recognize, promote, and celebrate excellence in the discipline of Interaction Design. The Awards celebrate the work done by interaction designers every day, to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use. They will provide tangible examples of design excellence, inspire designers and businesses alike, and stimulate discussion on the role and value of design.

The Interaction Awards are open for entry until this Thursday, September 22. Learn more at

[Top image: A knitted Metrocard rattle available at Estella]

Add New Comment


  • kallepaspangen

    Too bad I'm not familiar with the New York metro "swipe" - I missed out on what seemed to be a great article. Hint: describe the "swipe" with an image, video or text to help readers understand the activity.

  • Ijungyi

    Great post,but the one thing I see here that is missing or not realized is the lack of awareness as to why we have all this various input devices when if it was truly about usability then we would have a simple interface without multiple requirements. What do I mean? Well anyone that lives in hk or London for that matter knows about the octopus that is a common card that requires no sliding - only a touch and is used for buses taxis stores or whatever - all at no cost and Bo pins required. Yet when I return to the USA I am back to dealing with the multiple networks that are controlled by the banks that force us to use primitive technology in order to pay them extortion fees. Yes they are getting their fancy chip cards that only protect them , when in fact if they didn't control our networks we would have a much simpler interface. I know it might sound like whining, but all I find every time I return home is we are moving further back from being leaders to being suckers to big business who selling us subpar phones and services, subpar banking and finical services and so forth and we are required to deal with the multiple interfaces due to their lack of investment in modern technology. So yes if you never left the USA you would think this is all modern, bbut infact I have been livening in hong kong since 1998 and they have had the octopus card since then and modern smart phones fast Internet etc all this time, so no need to deal with so many bs offerings that we here in America th ink are modern. I just came back and you could get 2000 minutes for about 10 dollars for your phone. Go figure for our subpar telco , 1.50 withdraw fees , 40$ slow Internet service that we all assume is what the rest of the world has - NOT .... So all this talk about usability is void when you realize that there is a simpler way that does not requi all that extra bs... So yes I like design , but design for design sake is just as cumbersome as no design... Simple is best, so when you get people all thinking outside of an envelope when they should just be licking it is not useful either. In fact the octopus is available on your phone watch and in fact they hav it so you can just touch with your hand, but they are concerned that thieves will be able to touch you and steal from you so they keep it in your wallet for now...

    So INTERACT & PLUS are simply bank networks that keep control of us and they continue to prevent modern technologies and options available to us thru their lobbies. So I think design is after the fact not before. Fix the system before you fix the design.... Anyone heard os SIP. Does anyone know that most smart phones have had it for a decade and the telcos force it from phones sold in the USA .. So same thing. In the USA we have only begun to get the technology that others have had for a long time, so how do you design around that. iPhone is a good example of that - a primitive technology that seemed to be great for us Americans who only had primitive technology to start with..

  • Brent Dickens

    We have a similar system in Wellington, New Zealand called Snapper. It works on buses, trains, shops and just requires a tap. Very simple to use and the whole eco system is brillant. I agree, design for designs sake is as bad as no design.

  • Stunezin

    Very interesting but ....
    "Interactivity" has been an aspect  of good design long before computers, digital tools or electronic anything and certainly includes the purely mechanical. Telephone switchboards for instance, but really anything someone uses - hand tools, bicycles, etc. To say it's a brand new concept seems as foggy as web2.

    Not everyone has, uses (or can afford) smart phones or ipads (or i-anything).  Though the future points that way non electric publications will probably be around for a while, so you can still pass on how to fold a newspaper.

  • Lisa

    Great article. As a New Yorker, there are times where I have to swipe my metrocard multiple times (usually when the train doors are about to close) and sometimes the turnstile takes my fare and tells me that my card was just used. Many people think that usability and interaction design is just about the technology, it's about the entire experience. In this case, the NYC subway experience.

  • Ewen

    Nice post. Thanks for this Robert and more importantly for spearheading the IXDA Awards. I look forward to hearing more from this event and am glad to know that the design sensibilities of FROG will have an influence on the judging criteria.


    Loved your article.  It reassured me that I'm not the only clumsy user around.  So much for universal symbols.  I'd add other user interface challenges such as faucets, toilets, door openings/closings in public restrooms, so many variations.  And, the list goes on.  


  • Cube3

    mand machine interface IS the key issue of our time... too bad IxDA now seems to be suckling at Google INCs teet... as i read about sponsorships of conferences/awards today. The same Google that "patents" such creative ideas as "daily changing logos using the  "process patent" of the failing american patent system.

    as we go from a eye/ear mediated world that has culmated in 5000 channels of nothing on, to a hand/eye world of 5000 choices and nothing of value back...  we should build up an independent professional universe that isnt paid for by the tool makers bankers.

    whome do we serve as designers..the everlasting question...

  • Carol S

    You might want to note for those who are not familiar with press typography that "leading" is pronounced LEDDing, not LEEding.

  • charles

    superb! designers all over will learn the lessons of interaction,experience and communication.nice one!

  • Cliff Kuang

    Thanks to everyone that noted the typos. We had an unfortunate morning here at Co.Design, with some severe server problems so it was a rush to get this post up. We'll try and sharpen up next time.

  • melissa martin

    TYPO: In the 1400's the printing press gave rise to an age OF enlightenment and graphic design arose with it.

  • melissa martin

    Typo: In the 1400's the printing press gave rise to an age OF enlightenment and graphic design arose with it.

  • veronika harbick

    Was very happy to discover this article today as I myself have been closely watching this field.  I do marketing, mostly digital and social media, and these kind of decisions are so critical to an application/tools success as much as the budget and strategies to promote them.

    I was recently in London and I was struck by how well organized and efficient the Tube was.  For course, I am partial to the Moscow metro system, which is probably the best in the world, but we can agree that NY has many improvements to make. I remember getting lost for months when I first moved to NYC every time I had to transfer at Grand Center. I think the subway system requires constant alertness in order to make it to your destination on time.

  • Chris Sainsbury

    I love these experience design problems - how do humans interact with technology every day and figure out what they're supposed to do to achieve their goal?

    As a Londoner, for me the NYC subway is very badly designed - someone once said to me it's the arrogance of New Yorkers who think "if you want to come and live in our city, you'll have to figure out our subway". Examples are: the lack of subway maps (1-2 per car), very few line-specific maps on platforms, many trains that contain no map at all of where they are going, incomprehensible hanging signs next to platforms and no key to indicate which stations an express train stops at (the station indicator is there on the map, but there is no key). For me the new in-train electronic signs are also bad design because they require the user to understand the concept of pagination for the later part of their journey which I would argue a significant number do not. Finally, the service disruptions you mention are very complex in themselves so I have exempted them from here, but I agree that the posters could be better designed.

    I think the city functions in spite of the design of the subway touch-points rather than because of it - your example of the turnstyle "thunk" is a great one.

    If I had to choose one app for the subway it would be NYC Subway - a simple, zoomable subway map that works without cellphone signal. Once you have that you can figure out everything else.

  • Hans Ahlborg

    loved it and it is so true that most companies just do not get it, not even most on-line companies....

  • Anne-Marie Armstrong

    Great article.  I teach usability and interaction to grad students at Colorado Technical University and will post the link for them to read.  Thanks,

  • willdonovan

    Thanks for a great post, I love the article. I echo what you are saying on a daily account, however I am intrigued why we have to keep asking this question that justifies why we do what we do.

    My experience in Interaction Design brings out all my good points along with a whole lot of passion to aim to do good design practices. I do think the language is catching up and we are realising more and more that we definately notice when bad interaction design takes place (or doesn't exist) that something is wrong.

    You mentioned organisations such as GE are looking for good interaction designers. In your experience, how inclusive are they with Interaction Design in their process?

    The danger is the attraction of doing great work, on big projects, with big companies, only to find the adoption of such techniques are sporadic at best leaving it difficult to pursue a career in such a place.

    Doesn't working at such a place as Frog provide more freedom to do great work and that you can implement?