What Designers Can Learn From The Debate Over Escalator Etiquette

You can design the perfect system, but you can’t force people to use it that way.

What Designers Can Learn From The Debate Over Escalator Etiquette
[Photo: Verne Ho/Unsplash]

You shouldn’t walk on escalators. That’s right: A story in The New York Times explains that researchers have found that standing two-by-two on the escalator is actually more efficient than the stand-to-the-left, climb-to-the-right etiquette that can be seen during rush hour in metropolitan subway systems across the country.


Want proof? A London-based consulting firm did an experiment at London’s Holburn Station to quantify just how much time you save by walking versus standing. When 40% of people walked, time for standers averaged 138 seconds versus 46 seconds for walkers. But when everyone stood still, the average time was only 59 seconds, a 79-second improvement for standers, at a loss of only 13 seconds for walkers.

[Video: Flickr user Ed Schipul]
So, when it comes to the collective good, everyone should stand. But that’s not what happens–no matter how hard metro systems try to encourage people to just stand.

It’s a classic example of designing a system that doesn’t take into account the behavioral psychology of its users, and the Times cites several experts as to how. Jeanine L. Skorinko, a professor of psychology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says people’s desire for personal space will cause them to take up more room on the escalator than necessary–slowing everyone down. Another psychologist quoted concurred: “Overall I am not too optimistic that people’s sense of altruism can override their sense of urgency and immediacy in a major metro area where the demands for speed and expediency are high,” said Curtis W. Reisinger, a psychologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.

This may seem like a silly problem on the surface, but it reveals the complexity of user behavior–an important aspect of design that isn’t always utilized by designers. Users aren’t machines, and they don’t always act in the most efficient manner possible, even when it would be beneficial to everyone. You can design the perfect system and optimize it down to the second, but you can’t force people to use it that way.

Yet these days, behavioral psychology is increasingly present in good design. There’s a reason why so many robots are anthropomorphic–we can’t help but trust them a little bit more when they look like us. Psychology can also explain why high ceilings are so desirable in buildings, why chair design can change someone’s mindset, and why there’s something oddly soothing about photos with no people in them.

Optimizing the escalator isn’t so hard. It’s optimizing the people that’s nearly impossible.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.