New York City & Usability
June 21, 2002

Until 10 months ago I used to live in and work in New York. A lot has changed since then: I moved to suburban Northern Virginia, bought a car and been blessed with a beautiful daughter.

Last weekend, I finally found time to take the whole family to visit New York for the first time since I left. It turned out to be a pretty miserable experience.

First off it rained the whole time we were there. It's hard enough negotiating the crowds in New York with a baby stroller, without having to dodge umbrellas walking at full ramming speed.

Secondly, I had forgotten why people do not own cars in New York. It's close to impossible to find parking and when you finally give up and go to a garage, the attendent tells you with an evil smile after looking at your out-of-State number plate, that it will be $30 for 2 hours. You bite your teeth and take the pain.

Lastly, being first time parents, we had grossly underestimated the time it actually take to mobilize ourselves with a baby away from home. We realized we needed multipy all actions by a factor 3 for both time and effort.

New York, overwhelming favors people with less "baggage". Whether that be actual, family, automobile or even cultural baggage. When I first moved to New York almost a decade ago, I savored all these things, because I was carrying all my possessions in one suitecase and the world had opened up before me. There was no other place on earth I wanted to be.

As one-tracked as my mind is, these events got me thinking about websites and usability. New York from a usabilty point of view, is absolutely awful. It does not cater to the general population, as I quickly found out having made a switch into different demography in the past few months. It can actually be down-right hostile towards them. But that doesn't prevent people from coming to it, or even loving it to death.

Had New York followed estabished usability principles that would have said -- roads should be wide and clearly marked, building should be no more than 3 stories high since no-one want to climb 3 flights of stairs to get to where they want to go, commercial areas should be separated from residential, and everything should be brightly colored and easy to find -- how would that have been any different from most of the suburbs that we find homogenously across the country?

Usability principles alone maketh not a good site. It often lies in the stimulating interaction it provides and the compelling content it wishes to present. Take Slashdot for example. Its interface isn't pretty, nor its infinitely long posting easy to read or navigate, but it provides enough tools for people with a voice to be heard, rise up in the heirarchy of its community and collectively make a difference.

It is true Mr. Nielsen has made the web a safer place through his tireless evangelizing issues of usability. So much so that people have begun to think that usability is the most important thing in web design. For most, it may be. Sure, I want to be able to go get that Tall Skim Latte from the Starbucks in local Safeway and get the hell out as fast as I can before someone spots me. But part of me still longs to live dangerously in New York.