Over the course of these two projects, as well as many others that exist within complex public spaces, we’ve assembled a running list of things that we’ve learned and now apply to each new project. Our hope is that by sharing these considerations, other designers will be able to speed past some of the challenges that once held us up.
One of the biggest differences between civic design and other forms of design is in how many different people and diverse stakeholder groups need to be satisfied in order for a project to succeed. Projects that are entirely focused on serving the needs of the citizens often don’t get the political support they need to launch nor the financial backing to thrive. Projects fully focused on making money don’t get support of the citizens, nor politicians, as it then becomes a purely commercial endeavor. Projects that are solely focused on pleasing politicians won’t guarantee funding or public interest. We’ve had repeated success in this space largely due to respecting these tensions and designing for the “Three C’s” of Citizens, Cities, and Commerce.
Adhering to the Three C’s ensures that you have the support of the groups needed to build, adopt, and maintain your project. Citizens influence the changes that happen to their city, and if they’re not happy with a change, they have the power to block it. Next, collaboration with the City or city government is essential if the solution is using public space or publicly used programs. If the city government is on your side, they can help push your initiative through challenges as they arise, and overcome blockers that some may put up. To put it bluntly, the city needs to see value, because it has the power to decide if you can or can’t install your project. Finally, not to be overlooked is Commerce. Bringing in a steady flow of money ensures that you can fully build your vision and ensures that you can build a team to construct, implement, and support your product. Commerce and the city have always had a delicate relationship, but more and more we’ve seen the value of a close collaboration; from the revival of Central Park to New York’s CitiBike, great things can happen when a city and the business community can find mutual value.
A large part of why LinkNYC has been able to get traction has been its focus on considering the needs of the city, the citizens, and commerce. LinkNYC’s free WiFi, free phone calls, free mapping, a quick access 911 button, and other resources are features that many see as a valuable addition to the streetscape. But this alone won’t bring success to a project. There have been many projects that aim to bring public WiFi to cities, but many of them have not been sustainable because of a lack of consistent revenue after the initial funding dries up. The advertising revenue that will be brought in by LinkNYC will ensure that the Link’s have the funding they need for updates and repairs, and the access to free WiFi and other services help to ensure that there is support from the citizens needed to dedicate public land to the project. The city, recognizing the greater access and ability to generate revenue, has been a strong supporter and collaborator on the building of LinkNYC.
Trying to solve for everyone’s needs is usually not advised when approaching a design project. The concern is that a solution will become watered down, and instead of serving all people, it will serve none. But when designing for cities, you don’t get to narrow your market. In order to put a solution in a public space, you must provide value to the entire market; otherwise, citizens or the city will block your initiative. The question then becomes, how do we design for everyone and not lose the project in the process?
One way to do this is by defining a clear vision and purpose at the beginning of the project, and sticking to it. While beginning a project in the civic space, it can be easy to become overwhelmed as you uncover problems that your city faces. Trying to solve every problem will be paralyzing. To ensure that you can solve a single problem well, start with a strong vision to ensure that your product doesn’t become diluted over time. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? What impact do you want to have? What’s your hypothesis on how to make this work?
Starting with a vision may seem counterintuitive to those with a human-centered background. This isn’t to say that you’ll ignore users’ needs—and in fact, your vision should be based on a deep user need to begin with—but by knowing what you want to do, you’ll be able to better navigate tough decisions throughout the process. This also ensures that as you begin designing, you can adapt your solution to the needs of the people you meet, but it also means that you won’t be swimming in an ocean of needs.
LinkNYC started as a concept for what could replace the payphone system in NYC and bring connectivity and communication to the city in a way that was more relevant to modern times. The vision from the start has been for outdoor connectivity hubs that provide free services to citizens and are supported by ad revenue. Over the course of the project, many details have been filled in, and features and interactions defined and evolved as we learned more about the needs of different stakeholders, but the core vision has remained the same. This strong vision gave the teams flexibility to explore and make decisions while not diluting the purpose of the project.
In addition to creating a vision, it’s important to define what you’re not doing. Sometimes this is even more important than defining what you’re doing. In a project for a city, it can be easy to identify thousands of additional challenges that you’d like to solve for, but if you were to begin pursuing all of them, you wouldn’t be able to get anything done. As your project evolves and you identify additional issues that you might be able to resolve, make a decision as a team about which you are and aren’t going to try to solve. This ensures that your project stays focused and you can better address the task at hand.
It’s impossible to meet everyone you will be designing for, especially in a city like New York, with millions of residents and millions more visitors. With many design thinking projects, designers narrow their focus to meeting a handful of the users who represent the demographic groups that they are targeting. When designing for a city, this is no longer a viable strategy. So how do you get to know your users and ensure their needs are met? By defining the breadth of your demographic, you can identify groups that represent the most extreme needs. By understanding extremes, you can solve for most of the whole. Looking to extremes is already a core concept for many design thinkers, but in this case, we reach really wide to meet groups who represent needs at each end of the spectrum we are designing for.
Once you identify the representatives of the extreme needs relating to your project, you can begin to connect with them. Recruiting and building relationships can take many forms, from on-street intercepts, friends and family conversations, or full-on recruits. Forging relationships with community groups has helped us recruit group members to talk to. Usually we give participants a gift card or other incentive for their time, and it’s a win-win situation for us and the groups as we both share a common desire to serve the needs of their constituents.
Another approach that some designers use to understand the needs of a community is participatory design. While participatory design has its benefits, it risks pointing designers in directions that are too idealized and not feasible to ever accomplish, leading to unrealistic expectations by participating communities. Instead, by developing hypotheses, concepts, and prototypes and testing them with people, you’re able to incorporate diverse needs without losing track of your vision.
For LinkNYC, it was essential for us to design for all New Yorkers, as well as commuters and tourists representing every diverse walk of life. From people who speak English fluently to not at all, people with full mobility to those who are blind or have a disability, people who regularly use technology and own a smartphone to those who have never used a computer, we needed to create something usable by the greatest number of people possible. To ensure that our designs would work for everyone, we needed to understand the different needs that people would have, but we also had to work efficiently to ensure the project kept moving forward. To do this, we built relationships with community groups whose member represented the most extreme range of needs. For example, we worked with the Older Adult Technology Services group in New York City with people who were 65+, many of whom didn’t own a computer or a smartphone and were just now learning how to use tablets to test our concepts and interfaces and understand what was easy for them, what was hard, what they valued, and what they didn’t. We also worked with a group of adult high school students, many of whom recently immigrated to the United States and didn’t speak much English, if any at all. Within this setting, we refined how we communicate LinkNYC’s features and offerings to those who speak a wide range of languages other than English. Learning from and designing for these groups has enabled us to create designs that will serve the most challenging of situations and will therefore also work for the vast majority of people in between.
“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
We’ve all seen projects that launched with great acclaim only to be neglected and fall apart over time. To help ensure that a project will thrive for years to come, it’s important to understand, and design for, how the product will be maintained. How will broken parts be replaced, and by whom? How will they know how to fix it? What happens if it is graffitied or gets dirty? Who will update content? Who is responsible for the security of data? Understanding how your project will be maintained can enable you to make thoughtful design decisions for the people who will be supporting your product. This leads to a user having a good experience with your product, not just on day one, but for years down the line.
In the case of our MTA project, meeting with maintenance teams who would ultimately be responsible for upkeep early on proved pivotal in understanding workflows for reporting an issue and resolution. Insights from these conversations highlighted challenges from past projects and informed revisions to the layout of internal components of the kiosk and clear labeling conventions. These insights took form in a MTA maintenance training manual, ensuring the efficient and simple replacement of broken parts.