Avoiding Information Overload While Mapping Seattle’s New Streetcar
November 21, 2016
When PRR was commissioned by SDOT to develop a map for Seattle’s new streetcar line, we had already seen some really great examples of transit maps that all shared a deliberate emphasis on the perspective the rider. We found this user-friendliness compelling, and were excited to do something similar for SDOT. Below we’ll share some of the principles we put into play when developing the Seattle Streetcar map.
It’s for the riders.
With any design project, your decisions should be anchored by the wants and needs of your audience—everything else should follow naturally. The minute you decide to prioritize a particular experience, you’ve already made a significant choice in terms of the scope of your project. Take the Seattle Transit map for example:
This map provides a lot of information. The author of this map, Oran Viriyincy, needed to show multiple modes of transportation, many different routes, and frequency of service. Success for this map is presenting all the information that would be useful to a diverse audience with diverse transportation needs without information overload.
With the streetcar map, we had a different kind of challenge. We knew from our research that daily streetcar riders wouldn’t be using our map. Daily commuters know where the line takes you. For tourists and others who do not regularly use public transportation, streetcars are cleaner, quieter, and more comfortable to ride, which attract people who would never consider taking a bus. And unlike a bus, you can look down the street and see exactly where the rails will take you. So for anyone who is a bit unfamiliar with the city or its transportation system, streetcars are reassuring. Because of this, we knew our typical streetcar rider needed a straightforward guide that would show them where the line goes and what is around each stop, both in terms of attractions and additional transportation options.
By making the conscious decision to limit the scope of our project to the people most likely using the streetcar, we had the luxury of entering a relatively narrow perspective. This allowed our team to avoid overloading users with too much information, causing action paralysis.
Everything on our streetcar map is shown from the perspective of the rider. It shows nearby services, points of interest, what’s within walking or biking distance, bus routes and many other transportation options that you can connect to—there’s a lot of information there. But most importantly, there’s also a lot of information missing.
It’s about what not to show people.
People are easily overwhelmed when presented with a lot of choices. Just think about buying laundry detergent: you realize there are six different brands that all hover around the same price point and you end up standing in the same aisle for fifteen minutes making a decision that feels largely arbitrary. That kind of information overload is exactly the kind of thing we were trying to avoid.
In this context, too many choices, too much information, too much detail—it all amounts to noise. Something that’s gained a lot of popularity over the past few years in the design community is the concept of quiet design; the idea that you can actually provide a better experience for a given user by giving them less information. This involves refusing to present people with choices they don’t necessarily have to make.
For example, early on, it was suggested that we include every bus line in the city along with the streetcar route in this map. That’s something we certainly could have done, but the really important question is: should we? In deciding not to include certain information we avoided giving people choices they did not absolutely have to make. Instead, we illustrated bus routes that run regularly and included only bus stops that intersect with the streetcar line because this provided the most relevant information for the typical streetcar rider.
This project was all about utility: making the map serve its function for its unique audience. We approached this challenge by asking ourselves how we could deliver a product that was beautiful because of, not in spite of, its simplicity and usability. When you prioritize the function and usefulness of a project, there is ultimately no doing something “just because”—which translates into its own unique kind of beauty.
In design, every detail matters, which is why we also put thought into how the map was going to fold, and how each panel would be used. Inset maps were designed to work across adjacent panels so users wouldn’t get ‘lost’ looking from the reference area to the zoomed-in area.