Countdowns and Scrambles: Innovative Interactions for Traffic
Managing traffic, the kind with cars and pedestrians instead of clicks, can surely be called one of the Big Problems for interaction design outside the realm of software. Two innovations for traffic that I recently came across stood out for their strong parallels with successful software interaction patterns.
The Countdown Stoplight
Eko is a concept created by designer Damjan Stanković that adds a graphical countdown ring to the standard red stoplight to indicate the amount of time left for the light to change. Like a combination of the progress bar for finite durations and the venerable Spinner that shows an indefinite duration, this is a brilliant idea that draws from principles of emotional design and works to improve the everyday experience of driving.
The concept reminded me of countdown timers on pedestrian crossing lights that also indicate the amount of time before the light changes, but in seconds rather than graphic representation. I first saw these in San Francisco. While Eko is more of an experience-softening touch, the countdown timers on pedestrian crossings make a significant difference in decisions that pedestrians make.
I wondered if the countdown could also be applied to help drivers make judgements about the transitional amber light. Not so. Doing so would add a variable that must first be observed and then measured by its rate of change in order to aid the decision-making process. Amber light judgements need to be made too quickly and already involve quite a few variables, so I retreated quickly from that notion. But for red lights the Eko would be a great touch, where the driver has only time to sit and observe the countdown.
Known by several names since the 1940s, [wikipop]Pedestrian Scrambles[/wikipop] are in use around the world, from Japan to the UK to the US, even here in Vancouver. The concept is to stop cars in all directions and open the intersection for diagonal and straight ahead street crossings. People walking around have all the skills they need to easily navigate through the crossing crowd without colliding, and have no need to watch for cars making turns at the same time.
Watching Sam Javanrouh‘s time-lapse video of such a crossing’s first day of use at a busy Toronto intersection, we can see a distinctively safer and effective flow to alternating pedestrian and auto crossings: Watch Scramble by Sam Javanrough
The idea of people self-organizing with minimal direction by the intersection designers has a great deal in common with folksonomies, where people using social information software categorize content with an uncontrolled, emergent vocabulary. Folksonomies are typically realized in tag clouds, and like tag clouds Scramble Crossings can look somewhat chaotic but actually sort themselves out organically at the ground level. That ability of a crowd to self-organize without having meticulous guidelines in place reminds us that what’s optimal isn’t necessarily perfectly manicured, in content or traffic management.