Unrealistic design: The NYT’s Taxi TV proposal

Last night, the New York Times‘ Op-Art (?) section posted a proposal from Antenna, a NYC design agency, to redesign the annoying clamor that is the NYC Taxi TV experience.

Anyone could make this screen look better. But it takes more than that to make it a good design.

I had an instant, negative reaction to the proposal. Not because of the design itself, which demonstrates a solid grasp of the information cab riders want and the context in which they’re consuming the information, but because the designers understood the design problem all wrong.

If the sole objective of Taxi TV is “providing useful information to riders,” then Antenna’s design is commendable. But that’s not the only–or even the primary–objective of Taxi TV. A 2007 Times article about NYC’s Taxi TV contracts confirms as much: Taxi TV is about advertising, not providing useful information. (Sidenote: WABC’s Taxi TV page for ad buyers provides a pinpoint description of NYC taxi passengers, as only a marketer could—“upscale, affluent and captive”.)

It’s unpalatable, but Taxi TV is an advertising platform first and foremost, which means that Antenna’s proposal is a failure. The client—advertisers—would never agree to having their content off by default, hidden behind an “Entertainment” button. That design wouldn’t make it past the first client review (if even that far).

This is a perfect illustration of the tension designers face between providing the end user with the best possible experience and not getting fired by your client for doing so. For Taxi TV, the best user experience is clearly at odds with the business objectives. A good designer reconciles that issue instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

How I Would Improve Taxi TV

I’ll put my money where my mouth is and offer a better proposal. Here are the design principles I’d follow, ones that I feel would result in a realistic and implementable design for Taxi TV’s interface.

Design to keep the screen on

From the advertisers’ perspective, nothing is worse than what I regularly do: hop in the cab, get instantly annoyed at the screen blaring at me, and immediately hit the OFF button on the screen. Of course, Taxi TV should allow users to turn the system off, but the content and the UI should do all it can to convince users that Taxi TV is worth keeping on. To do this, start the cab ride with a dashboard or overview of the things a passenger can do: see a map, get fare information, or watch TV. Don’t just give the user a choice, show them what they could experience with a small, live updating map like the one Antenna designed, a live (but muted) TV screen, and live updating fare information. Entice passengers to drill down into any of these three options.

Shut up and enjoy the ride

Leave the sound off until the passenger turns it on. This allows ads to be seen while decreasing the chance that a user immediately and instinctively turns the TV off when the ride starts. I would do my best to convince the client that muted ads are better than no ads at all. This could even be a useful design constraint for advertisers: make your ads compelling enough that passengers want to hear them. Or, to take it a step further, the NYC TLC could have structured the entire advertising model so that advertisers only pay for passenger interactions (as opposed to muted impressions).

Don’t do anything unless the user requests it

Taxi TV’s posture should be passive and reactive. Let the passenger approach Taxi TV and provide only what the passenger requests. Ultimately, this will feel like a less annoying experience to the passenger and makes them less likely to form a negative view of Taxi TV with repeated experiences. As a result, you have a passenger audience that is less hardened and more likely to see Taxi TV as a useful resource than an obtrusive annoyance.

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