Thoughts on User Experience Design for Project Division

At 6AM, it always smells the same outside Charles de Gaulle. A layer of fog shelters the airport from city smog as I wait for a bus transfer to the Métro. It is crisp and damp. Before sun breaks the fog, it feels more like home than San Francisco. I am amazed at how smell can create the sense of a place but it is more than that; it is the brisk walk by baggage claim and customs, the wide corridor past currency exchange counters to that one distributeur automatique downstairs to withdraw Euros at the lowest exchange rate available, the push through the sliding glass doors to the bus stop where airport employees take cigarette breaks with locals returning home. This is the first stop in a ritual that I associate most intimately with Paris. The breath is confirmation that I have arrived.

When I remember a place, it is that intangible emotive quality that I first remember. Did I feel safe? Did I feel comfortable? Would I want to return? Tonight our group walked around the Division station documenting the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood. We found an area in flux. Amidst the noisy thoroughfare, unkept buildings, and garbage flocked streets were pockets of neighborhood improvements: new construction with modern interiors and brick facades that blended into the environment. We felt comfortable in areas that were well-inhabited, where blinds were open and windows were tall and wide. The transparency of a family’s lifestyle suggested that an area was safe. We felt unsafe in areas that seemed abandoned, where front lawns were overgrown and fenced off. If someone lived in these places, they didn’t create a welcoming environment.

Then I remember the amenities. At Charles De Gaulle, there are shops with good selections of fine wine and extensive humidors of Cuban cigars. There is a food court with at least two or three merchants boasting a selection of Iranian caviar and truffles. It’s a foodie’s dream mall and airport terminal in one. Division has a few upscale dining/bar venues, but they are clustered between run-down schools, Section 8 housing, and dilapidated churches. The only fitness center we could find was a small farm of treadmills in one of the trendier sections. Where does someone go to buy upscale groceries around here?

Ostensibly, the Charles de Gaulle and Division cater to different demographics. Someone who flies to Paris isn’t supposed to be of the same social class as someone who lives in the Division area. Yet if the housing facelift is any indication, that line is quickly blurring. What do the growing population of young professional families want in a transit station?

I’d like to create the experience of a passage home for riders in the evening and a launching point for a successful day in the morning. That begins by making the user’s experience as seamless as possible. Bicyclists will find safe and convenient parking on the way to the platform. Connections to and from the circle line, busses and taxis will be sheltered, informed and convenient. That experience continues with extra services. The smell of coffee and prepared foods will overwhelm unpleasant street odors. While the station is still primarily a passage, it can also serve as a destination that offers amenities such as a grocery store and fitness center.

Aesthetically, I want the station to reflect the community’s evolving architecture. Above ground, that means brick facades and tall glass windows that reveal the inner workings of the station. Outside, bright lampposts would help keep the building and area secure while discouraging the homeless from sleeping outside the station. Mediating the underground and above ground environments are transitions that clearly demarcate where one is and where one is headed. If the inner passages can be organized in a geometrically simple way, people will learn the station layout faster.

Ultimately the station design comes down to creating a positive user experience for the community. If we aim to please the marginal, more finicky users, we will improve station design for all users. In turn, we will increase ridership and improve the image of the CTA. This begins by framing an ideal experience and continues with the design of seamless transitions and passenger amenities. Charles de Gaulle is memorable because the experience of passing through it feels like home. So too should Division extend that apropos sentiment of “just right.”

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