Adrian Hopkins

Media Studies, MA

Adrian conducted user testing studies for each of the maps designed during the course.



Over the course of the semester I carried out three phases of user testing. The goal of this testing was to use different methods of probing to get subway riders to identify their preferences in the designed elements that subway maps use to communicate to them. Rather than dictating to classmates how they should design, my ideal has been to identify what riders desire and, at best, shine a light on concerns that may not have been previously considered.

Testing was carried out in three phases:

Phase One (March 22nd)
A focus group with six non-native, non-designer NYC residents featuring a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the current MTA map and pencil exercises with class maps. Participants were all college-educated and in their 20s.

Phase Two (April 17th)
On-the-spot pencil exercises with twelve visitors to Central Park. Participants drew short routes and provided brief feedback about class maps. Participants included tourists, transplants, and natives aged in their 20s to over 60.

Phase Three (April 29th – May 8th)
Eleven participants took sample trips throughout the city with only class maps as aides and provided feedback on map effectiveness. Trips were conducted between the Soho Apple Store, MoMA PS1, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Participants were all college-educated and in their 20s. Additionally, a colorblind Parsons student was interviewed about his experience with subway maps and offered feedback on his ability to understand selected classmates’ maps. Team members at New York-based brand design agency Bureau Blank also offered feedback on one student’s map.

From the beginning of testing, I understood that my goal was to be an observer and filter for the massive amounts of information I would be gathering. Rather than making broad statements about ‘what all New Yorkers want from the subway map,’ I tried to identify themes and patterns in how individual riders approach the map. The effort of analysis will be ongoing after the semester is complete, but one of the most notable findings was in the range of methods that people use to locate themselves on the map and plan a travel route.

I asked one longtime New Yorker in Central Park to draw his subway trip home on Bobby‘s map. The man obliged and the first thing he looked for was Broadway at the Northern end of Manhattan, as he lives in Washington Heights. Bobby’s map, of course, does not reference any street names or geographic borders, so the man was became frustrated. When I pointed out where Broadway would be on that map, his tone softened and he was able to easily draw his route. Given his status as a longtime city resident, it is likely that he has seen the names and colors of the subway lines change to the point where he identifies his trip primarily by its relationship to the land above ground. He also asked the very astute question of why the map needs to be changed at all, underscoring the very present notions of habit and familiarity.

Another tester, who has only lived in the metro area for two months, had only taken two subway trips prior to agreeing to take one in Phase 3. Those trips were both on the 6 train, so when I asked him to make a trip from Soho to Central Harlem, his instinct was to find the 6, as the train with which he was most comfortable and coordinate his route that way. Although, his trip route wound up being less direct and longer in time than others with the same trip, he told me that he did not feel comfortable exploring another line for its own sake just yet, unless he were able to ride with someone more experienced or use a smartphone or online trip planner to guide him.

Another recent transplant to the city told me that she prefers to take express trains and avoid transfers whenever she can, even if it requires more walking. So for her, the way a map reflected relative distance was important, even it was not an explicit geographic map. She referenced the way that the current MTA map makes areas of downtown Manhattan seem very close to each when they are not. This reinforced the focus that Paul & Julia placed on the Downtown Manhattan area as one of the earliest ‘problems’ to solve.

I am graduating this semester, but this experience with research, testing, and design for the public has opened an exciting new interest area that I would like to continue with in the future.

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