Lost in Penn Station

Why Information Architecture Matters in the Things We Create

I commute through New York Penn Station daily. I’ve been doing so for nearly three years now, and I still get turned around and completely disoriented any time I attempt to deviate from the normal paths I’ve figured out. It’s rather remarkable how, even after three years (!!!) this can keep happening. I depend upon a system of landmarks I’ve figured out: head towards the Dunkin’ Donuts sign, take a left at the now-defunct information booth, go right at the bookstore, right again at the Starbucks in the long hallway, and keep going until I see the subway turnstile entrances. When I’ve actually tried to follow the official signage for the station, I’ve wound up off course and have nearly missed my train.

As I’ve been reading about the history, evolution and application of information architecture (IA), Penn Station comes to mind as a vivid example of how, when poorly executed, it can result in massive amounts of frustration and confusion for those dependent upon it.

The Old and The New

Home to three different railways and connecting with multiple subway lines, Penn Station is a complex, crowded, confusing place. Over 600,000 passengers commute through each day, making it “the busiest passenger transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere.” Penn Station has many loathsome qualities: it’s completely underground and dark, smelly, overcrowded, and dirty — a sad vestige of the demolition of the original structure, considered “a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style and one of the architectural jewels of New York City.”)

Pennsylvania Station (1910–1963)

Replacing that beautiful structure with the dull, labyrinthine complex that exists today seems an appropriate (if unfortunate) visual metaphor for the dysfunctional ugliness of its current navigational system. Penn Station’s lack of clear navigational signage and resources mean that every day is an exercise in confusion and frustration for those who enter.

So Wait, What’s Information Architecture?

As defined by the Information Architecture Institute, information architecture is “the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable.”

Image courtesy of http://designrfix.com/design/information-architecture-interaction-design

Good IA helps people find what they’re looking for. It provides cues for orientation and navigation. Good IA should be assessed on its ability to organize information in ways that are:

  • Findable
  • Accessible
  • Clear
  • Communicative
  • Usable
  • Credible
  • Controllable

As the Information Architecture Institute explains, “practicing information architecture involves facilitating the people and organizations we work with to consider their structures and language thoughtfully.”

Two Systems Too Many

As stated above, successful information architecture involves dialogue and communication between people and organizations. I have a hunch that not everyone involved in the signage at Penn Station have had such a conversation. As I mentioned, there are three railway lines and a subway system sharing space within the station, and each entity manages its own signs. There are, therefore, three different signage systems. The designers behind each system each made decisions about information hierarchy, type size and styling, sign placement, language, etc… but there seems to have been no opportunity for these groups to come together and discuss how the signage could work for the entirety of the whole place. With no overarching conversation or strategy about how to unify them into a consistent, cohesive whole, conflicts and gaps in information arise… and commuters are left to try and reconcile them as they stand in the middle of a long, crowded hallway, jostled by equally confused and frustrated passersby.

Information Architecture is Everywhere

When we talk about information architecture these days, much of our talk focuses upon digital products. But, information architecture is present everywhere.

Information architectures (IAs) are in the websites we use, the apps and software we download, the printed materials we encounter, and even the physical places we spend time in.” — IAI

Just as with the physical space of Penn Station, digital products can end up frustrating and confusing users in the same way that commuters feel when they’re looking for their gate and can’t find the right concourse.

An Ongoing Dialogue

As designers, it’s vital for us to dedicate space in the design process to consider the information architecture, making sure to have an ongoing dialogue with everyone involved in the creation and maintenance of the product. Doing so allows us to adjust when our organization or situation shifts and changes, and helps us avoid discrepancies in content and the way it’s organized.

Without continuing to check in and reconsider what’s changed and what should be updated and restructured, websites can end up with pages that are, as Lindsay DeVellis puts it, “balkanized — created for niche reasons and with little content or connection to the overall site, located in hard-to-find places, saddled with obscure names, and deployed in such numbers they fragment the potential user journey to a point of little return.”

If we get feedback from users that a digital product is difficult to use — if people aren’t sure where to click, what to do next, where to look for more information or how to make sense of where they are — there’s an issue with information architecture that needs to be addressed.

Seeing the Light

Regarding Penn Station, there is a possible light at the end of the (dark, labyrinthine) tunnel — the design firm Pentagram has just debuted the redesign of large-scale signage in the first phase of the Moynihan Station redevelopment project, and eventually this new system of signage will extend to a new Train Hall for Amtrak and LIRR. Pentagram’s signage system passes all marks on the IA heuristic checklist: findable, accessible, clear, communicative, usable, credible and controllable.

I first encountered it this summer, when a normally-closed staircase was one day opened to us as we exited the train. Lit bright blue, the stairs led up to a bright, airy, open hall with big, bold type and large-scale graphics set in bright blue and yellow. As Diana Budds put it in Fast Company, “the entire structure is like a compass directing people where to go.

That’s the power of good information architecture, and it’s what we can all aspire to — whether designing a way-finding system for the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere, creating a website for a global institution, or designing a simple website for a local small business. We can all use a good compass, wherever we are.

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