PComp - Week 3 Observation

26 Sep 2016
courses, documentation, pcomp

I took the train to DC on Monday for a conference at the Library of Congress, and decided to observe people watching the train schedule ticker board. Trying to be an outsider, here’s my observation of people’s interaction with the board...

Crowds ceaselessly gather and disperse around a board, approximately 20 ft wide and 8 ft tall. It has 10 columns and 9 rows. There is a large open area where people gather in front of the board. People walk up, sometimes in pairs or groups and sometimes individually. They look at the board with a studious look on their face. Once a person looks at the board, they will either stay in place or wander off somewhere, sometimes returning with food or drink and looking at the board again. The people who stay in place will continue to glance at the board 1-2 times/minutes while they engage in other light activities such as check their phone, drink coffee, or chat with other members of their group.

When the 5th column (“Track”) changes from blank to having a 1 or 2 digit number, a large group of people briskly move toward a sign on the floor with the corresponding number that has just been posted. Some people seem to have been waiting in this area for a while, and frequently look at the board with a worried look on their face. Presumably they are on one of the two trains that say “Late” in the 4th column (“Status”). Given that there are several ways people use this board, I would guess that the average interaction time is 10-15 minutes.

The Amtrak ticker board is a fine example of Norman’s negative affect, which is a design that “focuses cognition, enhancing depth-first processing and minimizing distractions.” People interacting with the board often looked stressed, anxious, and sometimes panicked. Rarely did I observe someone people looking calm or relaxed.

Norman states, “Negative affect focuses the mind, leading to better concentration. In cases of an immediate threat this is good, for it concentrates processing power upon the danger. When creative problem solving is required this is bad, for it leads to narrow, tunnel vision.”

While no one describes an experience at Penn Station as pleasant, if we adopt Norman’s positive and negative affect, we can reason that a negative affect is a logical choice. Thousands of people move through Penn Station everyday on hundreds of difference trains. There are many opportunities for chaos and confusion, but there’s a constant for every traveler: they know their destination and train number and want to know when their train leaves and on what platform. The ticker board effectively delivers this information.

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