Visitor Friendliness and Hostility: On Airports and Disneyland

by Ariela

My geekery takes a lot of forms. I like things that are considered culturally geeky: comics, SFF, etc. I also have a day job in tech. But today I want to geek out about something I haven't spoken about much on this blog: usability.

In between aspiring to be a professional artist when I was a child and then circling back around to actually become one as an adult (with an ongoing dog-leg into non-profit technology), I spent my high school and college years wanting to go into exhibit design for history museums. This meant that I spent some time learning about visitor flow in physical spaces as well as in websites.* Since I spent a week in London recently, I thought a lot about usability in the real world, between doing touristy stuff at historic sites and museums and flying in and out.

Heathrow security prep station. This photo is from futuretravelexperience.com. I did not get my own as I didn't want to hold up a line by taking photos.

Heathrow security prep station. This photo is from futuretravelexperience.com. I did not get my own as I didn't want to hold up a line by taking photos.

Let me say, for all the terrible things that people say about Heathrow, I found it quite visitor-friendly. Before going through security, they have preparation stations set up. They're little counters where you can sort your stuff out. They not only have trash cans, they also have designated receptacles where you can dump liquids out of your bottles, and they have plastic bag dispensers for your small liquids. At security itself, the bins are bigger than in American airports. Not only that, but instead of having carts of them at the head of the line, the empties are returned to the start point by gravity rollers underneath the conveyor belt that brings the full ones through the screener. They had security personnel at each conveyor belt assisting you. Oh, and you get to keep your shoes on. It not only made the onerous process of going through security rather less terrible, it also made it faster, so there wasn't much of a wait.

This image of dense crowds at an airport is from TravelAndLeisure.com. Sure looks leisurely to us. Oh wait, no it doesn't.

This image of dense crowds at an airport is from TravelAndLeisure.com. Sure looks leisurely to us. Oh wait, no it doesn't.

Contrast this to an American airport. There's nowhere convenient to prepare to go through security. There's nowhere nearby to dump liquids, which means that the person who inevitably forgot to empty their water bottle has to run back to find someplace, holding up the line. They certainly don't provide plastic bags for small liquids either. No one assists you as you prepare your stuff to go through the screener - the security personnel near that side of the conveyor belt tend to walk around shouting reminders to put your laptop in a bin by itself, etc. There's no automatic return of bins, so that can be another holdup. It's not actually designed for maximum inefficiency and misery during the process, but it seems to come close. Nobody likes being in an American airport, and security is everyone's least favorite part.

Water fountains for people of all heights in California Adventure.

Water fountains for people of all heights in California Adventure.

If I had to name the opposite of an American airport, I would choose Disneyland. I went to Disneyland for the first time in September 2016, and I was blown away by the user-friendliness of the place. A lot of this was just because it was actually designed with the idea that people who aren't adults have a right to be accommodated. There were changing stations in all the bathrooms, usually multiples. Water fountains came in several different heights. As an adult who needs shoes to see 5' tall, believe me, there's a difference in the comfort of seats designed for multiple heights and ones designed for the average adult. But a lot of it has nothing to do with children.

I can't speak to the actual accessibility of Disney for people who are vision, auditory, or mobility impaired, but I sure noticed all the notations on the map about accessibility, pictured below. The fact that it was there up front, as opposed to having to go looking for it to learn about it, impressed me quite a bit.

Map of Disneyland with a legend on the right highlighting ALL THE SERVICES. Click to embiggen.

Map of Disneyland with a legend on the right highlighting ALL THE SERVICES. Click to embiggen.

This is a text payphone! How cool is that? So necessary for anyone hearing impaired who doesn't have access to a cell for whatever reason!

This is a text payphone! How cool is that? So necessary for anyone hearing impaired who doesn't have access to a cell for whatever reason!

Disposal cans at Main St. USA

Disposal cans at Main St. USA

The trash cans are a thing of Disney lore. Websites give conflicting stats, usually citing either 20 or 30 steps maximum between trash cans. I didn't stop to count it out - my poor spouse had to wait for me to take pictures of them, I suspect neither he nor the other visitors would have appreciated me stopping to measure out paces between each of them - but they appear at much shorter intervals than I have ever seen trash cans anywhere else. The same websites cite Walt himself as instituting the policy of so many trash cans as part of lowering the bar to guests throwing out their rubbish properly. I suspect that we don't see this outside of Disney not because institutions are not interested in lowering the bar to using trash cans but because of how many staff hours it would take to empty that many cans. Space might also be a consideration, too, as who wants to give that much footprint to trash cans?

One type of space that the trash cans at Disney don't take up so much is visual space. They are incorporated into the decor of the attraction, so they don't stick out as utilitarian, they're part of the experience and novelty. The other place Disney does this really well is in the waiting areas to get into rides. Like airports, Disney hosts people who inevitably spend a large amount of time waiting in lines. However, unlike airports, Disney tries to make this wait time as pleasant as possible, and they dress the waiting area in decor matching that of the ride, essentially trying to make the wait itself part of the ride, too.

Of course, airports can't make your wait more entertaining by making the waiting resemble being on an airplane because the vast majority of fliers are far more interested in their destination than the ride. But there are definitely things they could do to make the wait, and the ride less miserable. Unfortunately, there's no incentive to do so. People don't pay to use airports, they pay the airlines, and no airline is going to spearhead improvements in the general airport when they won't inspire anyone to fly with them more often. In fact, there's incentive not to improve, as that "calculated misery cost" is what causes people to pay for things like TSA PreCheck and visitor lounges. Ditto coach vs. First Class on the planes themselves.

There isn't really a point to all this rambling, except to say that user-friendliness has a lot of aspects and that they can make a huge difference to our experiences, even for something as simple as waiting in a line. Necessary but unpleasant experiences can be mitigated by user-friendliness, while good experiences can be enhanced; conversely good experiences can be soured by user-hostile environments and bad ones are transformed from annoying to miserable. This is true on the web as well as in the real world, but I rarely see people comparing the two outside of niche interest sites.

So next time you have a really unpleasant experience somewhere, ask yourself if there's something that could be done to make it more pleasant. If possible, give feedback on it; few places are as user-hostile as airports, and many want to make themselves more welcoming.

*If you ever see me in a museum exhibit, you may find me staring at the ceiling to check out their lighting configuration, or critiquing the layout of object labels.

Ariela's Love-Hate Relationship with Her Computer

by Ariela

Surface Pro 2, image courtesy of TechSpot. It's ... okay ... I guess.

Surface Pro 2, image courtesy of TechSpot.
It's ... okay ... I guess.

In our comedy of chibis last week, I revealed that I grudgingly use a Surface Pro 2. I feel some amount of shame over this. Between my membership in the graphics community and the tech community, I have been strongly inculcated with scorn for Windows. So this is me justifying my choice publicly, and also griping about the situation that led me to it.

Before I left NYC in 2012, I had an iMac desktop and an Ubuntu laptop. I used the Mac for image processing and the laptop for when I was on the go. I had an Intuos II 4"x5", but I did a lot less imaging then, so the tiny work surface wasn't such a hardship. I'd gotten the iMac secondhand as a discard from my uncle's office when they upgraded, so by the time I moved, the cost of packaging it properly to keep the screen from breaking would have been far greater than the value of the computer. Also, when moving to Chicago I started telecommuting and my day job set me up with a workstation at home, and two desktops for one person seemed ridiculous. So I left the iMac with Terri and went to Chicago with my Ubuntu laptop as my only personal computer.

By the time the laptop began to die, I was convinced that running PhotoShop in WINE wasn't going to cut it for me. While I know GIMP has its enthusiastic supporters, it doesn't work for me and I loath using it. I also wanted to get something with a touch screen, since my tiny Wacom tablet was getting cramped, and I prefered the idea of a display I could work on directly.

I was all set to get an iPad and ditch the laptop entirely until I discovered that iPads can't run the full version of PhotoShop. Print resolution for me is 800 dpi and I sometimes work as large as 18"x24". PhotoShop Express maxes out at 72 dpi and 1000 px x 1000 px. So I abandoned that idea and began looking for computers with touchscreens built in. I didn't want to have to get a box and then also an expensive external display.

With Apple making nothing with a full computer operating system and a touch screen, I began looking at PCs. Reviews quickly made it clear that the most sensitive touch screen was on the Surface Pro line. The Surface Pro 2 had come out a few months before and I decided on that. I named it Yang Guifei, a joke which no one has yet gotten, but pleased me.

It came with Windows 8.1 64-bit, and ... it did what I needed it to do. Which was what I had aimed for, but other than that it had a lot of annoying quirks. It also didn't recognize different levels of pressure from the stylus in PhotoShop, which infuriated me at first, but then I found a driver online that fixed that, and after that, the only problems were those that inveitably resulted from an OS that was trying to be both a laptop and a tablet simultaneously and managing to be neither particularly well. Windows 10 eliminated some of that jankiness (the onscreen keyboard no longer pops up every time I put my mouse in a text field despite having keyboard cover attached), but brought with it all the problems that everyone knows and hates about Windows 10. It still reboots unpredictably for no reason I can find, so I have been inspired to save obsessively, which isn't a bad habit, but I shouldn't have to protect myself from guerilla rebooting. And as with any Windows machine, its primary purpose seems to be to run Windows updates.

My Surface Pro 2 is 3 years old now and is beginning to show its age, so I am starting to watch tech news again to see what I might want to get next time. Apple just unveiled its newest laptops, and still hasn't added a touch screen, which has me and a lot of other graphics people I know scratching our heads. (I remain uninterested in buying a computer and an external touch screen, so AirDisplay and Duet's promise of being able to use an iPad as a touchscreen monitor for another device is not enticing to me at all.) Then, as if we don't already have enough proof that 2016 is the year Normal decided to take a leap out a window, Microsoft came out with the Surface Studio, which has impressed the heck out of most people I have spoken with.

I'm hoping to eke at least another year out of this computer before I have to shell out more money. I'm hoping Apple will release a MacBook Pro Pro with a touchscreen before then, but chances are good that I will wind up with a Surface Pro 5.