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Can researchers learn anything from the Tube map?

In both the transport and graphic design worlds, the story of how electrical draughtsman Harry Beck created the Tube map as we know it sits in an odd space between subject of serious historical study and urban myth. The map itself has become a design classic and the supposed rules embodied in it have become of basis for the presentation of urban transport networks to their users everywhere from Paris to Australia (even as the London Tube map itself has breached an increasing number of them). Indeed it’s a measure of how deeply these rules have entered our sub-conscious that when we see a network map which flouts them we intuitively know something is “wrong” even if we can’t put our finger on it.

A fascinating new book by Maxwell Roberts, Underground Maps Unravelled, Explorations in Information Design sheds a lot of new light on the topic. Sadly for Beck fans, Roberts deconstructs much of the myth; pointing out many other designers who were moving away from topographic to schematic representations of rail networks at the same time and with more success in several cases. Of more practical use; he tests Beck’s “rules” to destruction, often with humorous effect, and finds them wanting in many circumstances and for many transport networks.

Roberts ends with the book with an attempt to set out new set guidelines for clients and designers presenting information to the public. In this reader’s mind, many of these could equally apply to presenting the results from market research, including:

  1. Decide on the core purpose of the document you are producing and remove anything which detracts from that. Sounds obvious really, especially when you read Roberts’ spirited destruction of the decision by TfL to add information on wheelchair accessibility to the Tube Map. The information added was nowhere near detailed to enough to be of any use to anyone in a wheelchair, but managed to wreck the information on where you could change between lines which is after all the main point of the Tube Map.
  2. Think about cognitive load. Simply put this is the amount of information a document asks its readers to process. In both research and transport planning there is tendency to think we are being helpful in responding to requests to add some more detail. But if in answering a particular group’s need for information, we have made the document less clear for the majority of readers we have taken a step backwards. Better to a have a separate document designed just for that purpose and keep the main document focussed.
  3. Simply asking people what they like isn’t enough; you need objective measurement since people naturally react against the unknown and attach too much weight to aesthetics. In testing the utility of a new design an evidence based measure (such as how long it takes to plan a journey) is just as important as gauging customers’ preference. Conversely simply presenting the information in a manner which is more efficient is of no use if its appearance is so “disturbing” to the user that they won’t engage with it.

It’s a not a cheap read at £45, but as the author points in a spirited critique of the current Paris Metro map, poor presentation of information has a real cost in terms of the staff time spent helping frustrated users get to where they want. That rule seems to apply as much to market research as it does the transport industry.

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