[P-Comp] Observing Interaction in Public

Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it’s used, and describe the context in which it’s being used.

I chose to observe the subway turnstiles at the south entrance to the West 4th subway station. Like most of the subway system, these have long been a source of consternation to me and other NYers and visitors alike. As a NYer of 11 years, I have a lot of thoughts on them already but I haven’t ever taken the time to sit and observe how they are actually interacted with. Let’s take a look!


  1. People hate to move – People entering or exiting the subway will tend to go towards the closest open turnstile regardless of their final destination. 
  2. Metrocards – People will tend to not have their Metrocards removed and ready until right before entering the turnstile.
  3. Screens – People will tend to look at the LED screen indicating whether or not their swipe worked when going through the turnstile.
  4. How to hold the card – People will orient the side of the card that says Metrocard towards them
  5. Waiting – People will wait for the GO light to light up before going. If there is a line to get through one turnstile, regardless of whether or not there are other open turnstiles a little farther away from them, people will wait in the line to the turnstile closest to them.
  6. Pushing – People will use their bodies to push through the turnstile rather than their hands


  1. That a big ol’ YEP. Without clear path lines, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of people I observed went to the turnstile nearest to their entrance into the station. At one point, a line formed as a long lone of people were exiting at the same time a long line of people were trying to enter. There were multiple open turnstiles a few steps away from the entrance. Still, everyone I observed waited to enter the two turnstiles closest to their entrance. One man even pushed his way through the people exiting. This makes me profoundly angry.
  2. Most people who weren’t clearly tourists (i.e. people who looked like they were not familiar with the turnstiles) did not look at the LED screen until there was a problem swiping. Then they would try swiping again, paying careful attention to the screen.
  3. There seems to be a huge issue with swiping: I couldn’t tell the difference between the beeps given for a successful swipe versus an unsuccessful swipe. Additionally, the screen ends up behind you if you are swiping and moving your body forward at the same time. People’s bodies were often ahead of the swipe. The flow of movement requires you to back up if there is an error.
  4. The cards work any way you swipe them (which I had never noticed before) as long as the magnetic strip is facing down. I did not notice a preference in the way people held them. But I never observed anyone holding them with the magnetic strip up.
  5. It is also very clear which direction the movement of the swipe should go in.
  6. There is no way to tell if your card has insufficient funds until you swipe it, causing a delay.
  7. I only observed one group of people who appeared to be using the turnstiles for the first time swipe and wait for the go ahead before going. 
  8. People who were traveling together tended to go through the same turnstile even when there was an entire open row.

Consider how the readings from Norman and Crawford reflect on what you see.

I’m particularly interested in how bodies move in space and how architecture is theater. The subway system is a case study of failure. I think about Norman and his insight into why certain features get left on devices long after their purpose has been obscured. The subway system is ancient and the product of competing private companies and while I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it, I think its many redundancies and inconveniences are remnants of an earlier model. I also must wonder if the people who designed the turnstiles ever used them in a rush on a Monday morning. 


Leave a Reply