Transforming maps into diagrams can help speed up travelers’ comprehension, but requires removing many factual details. How do we know what hurts and what helps?
Recently, I worked with the Port Authority of NY & NJ to design new wayfinding and train arrival displays for the AirTrain at JFK Airport. (A link to the complete project case study is at the end of this article.)
Here, I’ve broken down a what I found to be a difficult piece of the puzzle — figuring out how to best represent the AirTrain system in a small on-screen space.
While working on the project, I challenged myself to meet this goal: Answer the question “Can I get to my destination on this train?” in under 5 seconds.
A natural starting point was thinking about the map of the full system, which immediately and clearly failed to meet that goal:
There’s a time and place for both a geographic map and a simplified diagram of service, and I felt that these on-platform displays were definitely a case for a diagram.
Geographic accuracy and a faithful depiction of the terminals loop make a full map a good tool for understanding the system and planning a trip in advance, but very hard to scan and comprehend in just a few seconds. In contrast, the on-screen diagrams serve an audience who may be rushing into the station right as the train pulls up and need to know immediately whether to get on or not.
However, transforming a map to a diagram inherently requires removing information and detail — even fudging the truth about how the system works in the service of greater clarity.
How could I know which things would be helpful to remove, and which things would hurt comprehension? To work for this audience, a few “rules” quickly became apparent: