Touristic Usability

Khoi Vinh over at The Subtraction Blog has a great new post about “touristic usability.” His basic notion is that an entire city is comparable to an application, and should be intuitive like a good application. As he puts it, “given any new city, there are certain things that should be easy for tourists to comprehend without assistance.”

This is an excellent point, and the way Vinh presents it, it seems so completely obvious. But most big cities I’ve been to do a pretty poor job of explaining themselves and are rife with complicated procedure and jargon. This is really weird, when you consider how much money big cities dump into promoting tourism. Vinh gives a good example of the consequences of bad touristic usability:

To call anyone anywhere from these phones [in Paris], you must possess a calling card, which must be bought at newsstands or other convenience vendors. But I had no way of intuiting that from any of the instructional signage presented with the pay phones, and no guidebook, and therefore no other recourse. It was supremely frustrating and had the feeling of a tremendous gap in someone’s municipal planning. For me in that moment, it reflected poorly — on all of Paris, not necessarily on the Parisian telecommunications infrastructure alone.

As an explainist, I mostly agree. But I do think a certain amount of unexplained usability weirdness in a city is good, since it adds character and gives locals the home court advantage.

2 thoughts on “Touristic Usability

  1. “A certain amount of unexplained usability weirdness in a city is good, since it adds character and gives locals the home court advantage.”

    I would agree with that. In writing that post, I thought about the idea that if you make everything too simple and straightforward, it takes on a uniformity that can work against the character of a place.

    So what I was advocating for wasn’t necessarily the fact that all cities should meet a certain standard of touristic usability (though if we could come up with a reasonable minimum, it would be terrific). Rather, I just want to gauge a city’s touristic usability.

    This would have two purposes: help travelers gauge the overall difficulty of a city and better prepare. And, less directly, perhaps it would also ‘goose’ city planners into improving their overall usability if they were faced with a clean, simple aggregate number.

  2. Thank you for the clarification — that makes a lot of sense. Apologies for the long delay on posting this comment. I had missed it back in February. Fortunately, Dave found it when tidying up recently.

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