Information in mobility and transportation systems (2/3): languages and dialects

As attoma’s CEO, I will be speaking at the world’s leading trade fair for transport technology — InnoTrans — on September the 21st in Berlin. For this occasion, I have published a series of three articles dedicated to the importance of rethinking information in the field of transportation for mobility systems. Attoma works with multiple clients across different sectors and a key field of our expertise lies in the mobility sector.

Previous article: Information in mobility and transportation systems (1/3): How to empower users in the face of urban chaos

The map is not the territory (Alfred Korzybski)… And all the maps together neither

Like all good Homo sapiens, we all share the same ancestral tendency to mentally build maps of the territories we inhabit. These maps are often inaccurate if we compare them to the actual geography of a place. But they get the job done and allow us to get our bearings at a given moment in time. In this sense, they are effective for the intended purpose . We create them based on our personal knowledge, experience, cognitive and cultural patterns, and they are as such very much subjective. They are actually a reflection of ourselves — who we are, our vision of the world — and have very little to do with the actual world.

In one of the experiments we conducted, we asked users to draw a map of a same route. We then overlaid some of the maps. The result was an imagined territorial space, that was extremely instructive through its flaws, its overrepresentations, its oversights, and its rich narrative. It is no surprise that this experiment allowed us to confirm that the sum of various subjective outlooks does not by any means create an objective or clear-cut map, much less one that can be shared!

This is due to the fact that we are all citizens of Babel: we all think and express ourselves in different spatial languages, in our own dialects, and go about our daily occupations in the city according to personal maps that our unique to each of us. Digital infrastructure, unfortunately, is also polyglot and vernacular: despite a general trend towards normalizing interaction patterns, navigation applications offer different interfaces; operators continue to think and react as brands, with their own storytelling and signage; many transportation modes still use their own distinct pricing systems; and the list goes on. Thus, what instruments do we provide to users so that they are able to survive in Babel?

On the metro in Hong Kong/Photo © Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, 2016

Information Rehabilitation

At attoma, we often work with cognitive science researchers, and have engaged in particularly stimulating discussions with experts working on rehabilitation. What could this possibly have to do with the complexities of our urban environment? We believe that the levels of complexity within Babel strain our cognitive processing abilities. We are led to be in a constant state of rehabilitation. We constantly need to develop adaptive strategies in order to unravel these surrealistic mental knots that appear to be beyond the reach of our humble hunter-gatherer capacities.

This — rather unorthodox — working hypothesis has led us to develop shadowing and observation protocols that are a bit trendier and less conventional than those commonly used. This has allowed us to generate invaluable insights and lessons on the heuristic reasoning (understood as experimental approximations) that users deploy spontaneously, and have informed our design suggestions and choices. For instance, what can we derive from a traveler’s mental map of a transportation network when the said traveler has taken the same two metro lines systematically for the past 20 years? And what about the notion of territorial space when we are only familiar with a city’s railway map’s format that has been drawn to the scale of the city? For instance, in the Ile-de-France region, how can we accurately communicate traffic problems when they arise on the RER C — a line which could in fact be considered a network of its own, with its bewildering layout of branches, sub-branches, and sections?

Thus, living in Babel is all well and good, and has its advantages. But even with an army of information designers, we will never be able to avoid juggling a multitude of languages and dialects. The variety of codes and representations that surround us are a reflection of the intrinsic incoherence of all complex human constructs.

Our next article will discuss how to inject a modicum of simplicity into these systems, by developing a set of criteria to help determine priorities in usages and in types of information.

On the metro in New York/Photo © Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, 2016

Next article: Information in mobility and transportation systems (3/3): Designing systems for human beings

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