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.

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

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]

About the author

Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog’s health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog’s health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.