I’m NOT Chris Holmes, lead guitarist for 80’s hair metal legends WASP, who lives in Los Angeles CA, and is an alcoholic douchebag. Just to avoid any confusion.
I’m here today to talk about a research project I had the opportunity to work on recently that attempted to qualify the user experience of physical spaces in New York City, specifically what’s known as privately-owned public spaces, or POPs, which are one of New York’s hidden secrets.
In preparing for this presentation I took this photo recently and asked my colleagues in our New York office if they recognized this place. Most of them did, it’s right next to Melt, the awesome grilled cheese shop, down the block from our office. We, like most people, walk past it every day without realizing what a special kind of place it is: a Privately-Owned Public Space, or POPS. It’s one of over 500 in New York and the aim of our research project was to identify potential digital solutions to increase awareness and usage of all of them throughout the city.
New York is renowned for it’s public spaces, like Central Park, McCarren Park or The Highline, which offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Diverse public spaces provide refuge from overcrowded streets and sidewalks, venues for art and culture, open areas for exercise and relaxation, opportunities to be closer to nature within an urban environment, and places for public discourse and community assembly. Additionally, better conserved and nicer public spaces can lead to more connected communities, safer neighborhoods, and a better quality of life.
Here we see the Highline, an innovative and beautiful public park.But public space is limited in large over-developed cities and it is becoming even more so. Not everyone lives close to a major park, nor are they suitable for every type of activity for which people may wish to use them. Which is where POPS come in.
In 1961 NYC drafted a zoning resolution that offered private developers additional building area in return for providing a certain amount of public space. This resulted in the creation of more than 500 Privately Owned Public Spaces, also known as ‘POPS’, approximately 3.5 million in square feet of public space. The purpose of these spaces is to provide New York City residents open spaces to retreat from the dense, overcrowded urban environment, especially in neighborhoods far away from city parks, in exchange for additional floors on tall buildings. Initially, the 1961 zoning resolution did not stipulate strong design guidelines, basic amenity provisions or a standard set of rules and regulation of usage. Thus, many of these “first generation spaces”, which account for one-third of current POPS, lack fundamental assets that make public spaces appealing and practical for public use.
No two POPS are created equal. There are parks, pass-through plazas, outdoor plazas, atriums, lobbies, oases and concrete wastelands.
POPs werebrought to people’s attention by the Occupy Wall Street movement when they chose to base their protest in Zucotti Park, itself a privately-owned public space. There is much debate as to whether Occupy chose this space deliberately, knowing that the rules for usage were not understood. One of the reasons the protest was allowed to go on so long was because the NYPD and city officials were unsure of their jurisdiction when it came to POPS. Police aren’t allowed onto POPS and normal rules of conduct do not apply. The police were waiting for the building owners to instruct them to remove the protesters, which they were hesitant to do as it was not clear that Occupy were actually breaking any rules.
This is Professor Jerold Kayden, a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and a leading expert in the field of public spaces. He literally wrote the book on NYC POPs: Professor Kayden conducted extensive research in 2000 to catalogue every POPS and found that many of NYC’s POPS are underutilized and inaccessible, and only 41% were only marginally useful. Sadly, subsequent investigations have found that the state of the POPS has not changed dramatically since Kayden conducted the study over 12 years ago.Prof. Kayden was one of our key stakeholders and we needed him involved in order to give us legitimacy. I’ll talk more about him in a moment.
I was working at a digital agency in Brooklyn and we were approached by the Municipal Arts Society, a non-profit city organizations dedicated to improving livability issues in NYC. MAS, along with Prof. Kayden’s Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS), are the stewards of POPS, and they asked us to conduct research to identify potential digital solutions for livability issues with POPS, that could improve public awareness and usage of the spaces.This sounded like a really fascinating topic, and we accepted without hesitation, but this was completely new territory for us and we had no idea where to begin. MAS gave us free reign to explore the potential for digital solutions to address the livability issues with POPS. The deliverables for our research were to be conceptual designs for digital solutions, and a five-minute video highlighting the research and our proposed concepts, which were to be presented at MAS’ 2012 Symposium of the City, a forum for city shapers and thought leaders to share ideas surrounding city planning initiatives in New York and other cities across the globe.
We immediately identified some massive challenges with this project, least of all the sheer number of spaces and the people using them. Key for me were the precedent, or lack thereof, whether methodologies for solving digital problems could be used in the physical world, and the UX of meat space, how do you determine the user experience of a physical space.The user experience of a physical space is highly subjective. While millions of different people from different backgrounds and geographies can use Amazon and have pretty much the same user experience every time. But our experience of a physical space is highly dependent on context: who are we with, how many other people are there, what’s the weather like, what kind of day are we having, where are we coming from, where are we going, what time of day is it; and a slight change in any one of those can have a dramatic effect on our experience. Occupying physical space is inherently social; whether we like it or not, there will always be other people there, and ultimately it is our interactions with other people (or lack thereof) that define our experience of a physical space as much as our interactions with the physical space itself. So how to select an appropriate methodology to allow us to observe and explore that context?
Dana Chisnell is a UX researcher and author and she talks a lot about how traditional UX research methodologies are not so good at capturing context, which is becoming more and more critical for UX as the world becomes more social and mobile, and context becomes much more prevalent. I wanted to include this quote from Dana because it really sums up how we were feeling when trying to determine how to approach this research. “We don’t know how to find out about things we don’t know about.” This pretty much sums up our thinking as we designed a methodology for this research.
The choice of methodology was going to be crucial to the success of this project, but no one traditional UX research methodology would cover it. We were doing this work pro bono and everyone on the team was volunteering their time around client work, which would further impact our ability to execute the project as one cohesive team.
We realized very early on that this project was going to be highly dependent on context: we couldn’t interview users in the lab, we had to get out where the people were. Ethnography seemed like the best bet, but it typically requires significant amounts of time spent observing, which was a luxury we simply did not have. Unless you have a sufficient amount of time to spend observing, you’re at the whims of chance as to whether you capture anything interesting or worthwhile.A combination of ethnography and user intercepts was required in order to discover user stories but these are inherently unreliable due to people’s reluctance to respond to a stranger approaching them on the street wanting to talk, particularly for a large intimidating man with a funny accent.
Around this time I started going to a lot of agile meetups, partly to learn more about agile and how it fit with UX, but also to represent actual researchers who were few and far between at these get togethers. What I discovered was that a lot of dev teams were doing user research but their only exposure to it was usability testing at the end of a dev cycle, so not only were they going about it all wrong, they felt it was a pain in the arse. I started presenting to these groups about all the different ways they could be doing user research, particularly in the early design stages when exploratory research could not only give them some tangible user requirements to design to, but to inform their design through the process, making usability testing a fait accompli. The more I learned about agile, the more I realized that as a framework it shares some common characteristics with the fundamentals of user research: do it early, do it often, fail, learn, refine, repeat. This started me thinking about ways the two could come together to benefit both sides of the equation.
But how could they fit together? I Googled the term ‘agile ethnography’ and got very few results, but I came across a great blog post by Alicia Dudek, a design ethnographer and UX consultant, and she posed exactly the question that I was struggling with. How can we reconcile ethnography, a time and labour intensive methodology, with agile which is all about quick and dirty?
The answer was a lot simpler that it might seem: just fucking do it. This wasn’t really anything new, just taking the tools we already had and hacking them together to give us the outcome we wanted. What we needed to do was reframe the problem. So we approached it like any other exploratory research effort: follow your nose, adapt on the fly, see what emerges. The fact that this was unfamiliar territory for everyone involved gave us incredible leeway to adapt or change direction whenever we discovered something new or hit an obstacle. Because no one knew what failure looked like, there was no way we could fail.
So once we had a methodology, we drew up a hit list and just f#cking did it.I didn’t realize it at the time, but the key step for us was the first one, and is an important tip for anyone attempting to do research of this nature on any scale in order for an agile approach to succeed:
Everyone’s a researcher.We effectively turned everyone in the design team into a researcher, forcing them out of the lab to observe users in a real-world context.
Initially this was done out of necessity, but it turned out to be one of the smartest things we could have done. We had a lot of ground to cover, conducting user intercepts, stakeholder interviews, field visits and ethnography to gain insights into the challenges and needs across all target audiences, including building owners, residents boards, business improvement districts, NYC residents, and the city government.In order to cover as much ground as possible, we had everyone on the team become a researcher. We also deputized a group of UX interns and made it part of their development plan to learn how to conduct user research. This not only increased the efficiency of the iterations by ensuring everyone had the same level of shared knowledge and eliminating the need for formal deliverables, but also allowed us to gather far more and far richer artifacts in a short timeframe than the research team (i.e. me) alone could have done.
After talking to stakeholders we then we looked at the spaces themselves. There was no way we could recruit for this research so we treated the spaces themselves like users. We selected a representative sample of spaces and sent 10 teams of two researchers to five different spaces each, which gave us a detailed look at the user experience of 50 POPs. We all recorded observational data on the various aspects of different spaces, including:· Awareness of space (would people know it was here? Are there signs? How did they find out about it?)· Accessibility (easy to see from the street? Gates? At street level? Signage, wheelchair ramps)· Safety (security guards, well lit)· Cleanliness (trash cans, litter, ashtrays, cigarette butts)· Amenities (seating, tables, restrooms, water fountain, cafes/restaurants)· Opening Hours· Traffic (number of people moving through, no. of people sitting, distance from busy street, tourists vs locals)· Ambience (noise level, street noise, trees and plants, light)We took photographs of good and bad aspects, as well as video of people moving through or in the space. We noted the different activitiespeople were using the space for. We talked to security guards and nearby businesses/street vendors about people and their usage, the things they liked, the problems with it, what would they improve.We talked to people using the space (how did they find out about it, how often do they use it, what do they use it for, what do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? did they know it was a public space? What does that mean to them? what other spaces do they know about?)
There are some beautiful and innovative spaces…6 ½ Ave
Atrium at IBM plaza
Then there’s this…located next to a Hooters and sadly reminiscent of the state of many POPS, just not inviting or usable at all. (Photo by jag9889, flickr.com. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jag9889/8237672753/)So a key question for us became how do you improve a space like this? Based on our conversations with building owners, many of them wanted to improve their spaces but they had no idea how to go about it, where to find the information they needed, or who to ask. So those who wanted to improve their spaces were unable to do so, and those that didn’t escaped prosecution because the city lacked the manpower and political will to enforce the zoning regulations.
At this point we had faced a number of challenges, but there were a number of things which happened we weren’t anticipating…
Most of the stakeholders we spoke to were perfectly open and happy to talk to us, but a few were openly hostile towards us, questioned our motives, and were extremely resistant to participate in the process.
This was a huge surprise, as we understood that everyone was on board with this project and we were all working towards the same goal. Not so. Not all stakeholders had been properly briefed about who we were or what we were trying to accomplish, and as we were embarking on work which was similar to that which they had been doing for some time, they were understandably protective of their patch, particularly the non profits who railed against a commercial company coming in to try and capitalize on their good work, which was not what we were trying to do.But the biggest blow came from Prof. Kayden who said to me, “I won’t share any information with you. I won’t help you make money out of this.” This was a potentially massive blow to our credibility and put a lot of pressure on us to come up with design concepts that would really blow people away.
So jumping ahead to what we found. Rather than the anticipated single audience of ‘the general public’, we identified four distinct target audiences, each with a role to play in the success of POPS.‘Awareness’ was a key theme that cut through all of them, but it meant different things to different audiences. The public, or Users, are the key audience, as the end user they determine if a POPS is successful or not. Out of all the residents approached, not a single one knew what privately owned public spaces were. This in itself was not an insight, merely an observation. The real insight was that the general public didn’t care about POPS per se. What they cared about was finding the nearest quiet shady spot to eat their lunch, or use a public restroom, or meet a friend. If it’s in a POPS, great, if somewhere else, that’s great too. Don’t burden them with awareness they don’t need, give them the outcome they want.At a high level:No one knows the rulesThe public don’t careThose who use POPS want to keep them a secretIsolated from each otherOwners are not ogresOwnershipNo one group is responsible for changeEveryone’s waiting for someone else to do somethingEveryone needs to communicateWe learned that not only is there a lack of awareness about the spaces themselves and the rules of usage, but due to a lack of strong design guidelines, basic amenity provisions or a standard set of rules and regulation of usage, a large proportion of spaces lack the fundamental assets that make them appealing and practical for public use.
We developed a framework for a centralized digital platform to improve the following areas for these core stakeholders:1. Communication stream.2. Incentives to better maintain, regulate & update POPS.3. Information accessibility.4. Unified POPS identity and public awareness.
Awareness about POPS was the first step in producing an engaged user group, but recognizing different users’ context of use was imperative to increasing their usability. This included creating an identity the public could relate to and engage with beyond the physical limitations of the spaces. Even if all the proper digital tools are built, no one will use them unless they are launched in an identifiable and unique manner. An awareness campaign for POPS has to constantly connect with the rest of the POPS digital ecosystem, including:® Website that makes it easy for stakeholders to communicate and find necessary information® Optimized mobile website or app for users on-the-go and within the spaces® Updated, contemporized logo and signage® Fully developed and frequently-updated social media presenceIt was imperative that context of usage for each stakeholder group was explored when developing this digital ecosystem. For example, a property owner is more likely to go to a laptop or desktop to search for a landscaper, whereas a user looking for a place to eat lunch is more likely to use his or her smartphone. These specific cases of context will help identify what parts of the ecosystem need to be optimized for different platforms. This could be a powerful tool to enable citizens to become advocates for POPS and become the defacto monitoring and reporting arm for the City zoning regulators.
A smartphone application or mobile website that rewards people for using it inside and outside the spaces was one obvious solution. The app is contextual and responds to user’s need where and when they are. It adapts for different audiences, and is a scalable experience: the more you put into it the more you get out of it; as people’s connection to a space grows, so too does their connection to the city, and they are able to contribute, building on the foundation (reporting litter and other problems, telling others about their favourite spaces, looking for other spaces and events).
We also proposed a centralized information resource which drew on multiple available data sources and which addressed the specific need of the audience: for the public to learn more about spaces or find one close to them, or for building owners to research regulatory requirements or source an architect to help redesign their space.
As an unintended consequence of conducting this research, I learned a lot about New York and it’s secret hidden spaces. As a result, I felt a deeper connection with the city knowing about these secret spaces. It was important to me to imbue that sense of connection in our solutions, to help build that connection to physical space through technology, but also to preserve that really human emotional connection we have with cities and spaces.
At the end of it all we delivered the whitepaper and Professor Kayden presented the highlight video we producedat the MAS Summit for the City 2012, a forum for more than 1,100 city shapers and thought leaders to share ideas surrounding planning, design and infrastructure; preservation and sustainability; arts and cultural development, and community engagement, highlighting initiatives in New York and other cities across the globe. It’s only five minutes long so I’d like to play it for you now.
It was amazing to see our work (and our faces) presented on a huge screen in front of all those people, but the crowning achievement was afterwards when Prof. Kayden slapped me on the back and told me he didn’t care if we made money from it.
And soon after, APOPS launched a branded centralized information source for POPS.
For those who don’t know the adage about the Old Bull and the Young Bull, come see me after…
Het everyone involved in the research. Shared knowledgeand no need for deliverables really cuts down on the time needed to progress from one iteration to the next and helps focus on the most important aspects.
Some research is better than none, but when you’re adapting your methodology to suit limited time and budget you need an equivalent adjustment in your expectations about the depth of insights you’re going to get. Agile UX research can be done quickly and cheaply, I can go outside and spend 30 mins interviewing 5 people and get you some insights but you wouldn’t necessarily want to base any significant design decisions on them. Instead, use them as a starting point to refine and guide you into the next iteration and beyond. The great thing about agile is you always have another scrum coming up so if you missed anything, find it in the next iteration.
Make sure your stakeholders know who you are, leave enough time to explain what you’re doing, what you hope to achieve, what you expect from them, be prepared for hostility, don’t assume everyone has the same agenda or sees the value in what you’re doing), ‘Got your back’ (make sure the client and your colleagues fully support what you’re doing and are aware of the potential negatives, i.e. bailing you out, answering an annoyed phone call
Getting thrown out is inevitable, how to deal with it, get permission if you can, check in with security, let them know what you’re doing and that you have permission, they may even be a good source of intel as they’re there all day and tend to deal with problems more than anything elseKnow your rights, avoid getting the cops involved but it helps to be in the right‘Too Legit tah Quit’ (have ID, have approval, get permits, find out ahead of time what you need
Don’t get too caught up in project objectives or delivering on stakeholder assumptions, remember what the ‘U’ in UX stands forMake it about the users and their stories, ‘It’s all about you’ (people love talking about themselves, put it in a context they can understand and relate to, make the story about them)Ask people to tell you their stories, instead of answering your questions.It’s all about context. Context defines relationships -where do our designs fit into relationships? Technology aids humanity
CGBs – or Creepy Guy in the Bushes (observational, pattern detection, cataloguing, user profiling)Noob Tube - or The Rookie Monster (get interns to do it, gives them experience while covering a lot more ground, they’ll do whatever you say, might surprise you by doing something different)Local Yokel - or Look Ma, I’m On TV? (never underestimate the power of a camera to attract rubes)Boat Show Bikini Theory – or Pretty Girl at the Boat Show (you go to them)In the Pipe, 5x5 - or $5 for 5 Minutes (get them to come to you)
Lost in Privately-Owned Public Space: Agile Ethnography in New York's Secret Hidden Spaces
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•Qualitative UX researcher
•Archetypal middle child
•Lead guitar, 80’s hair metal
•Los Angeles, CA
Who is Chris Holmes?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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What are POPS?
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– 500+ spaces across all five boroughs of NYC.
– No time and no budget.
– Finding a representative sample of users across a city of 7 million people.
– Identifying users who could potentially be using these spaces but weren’t.
– Could digital solutions solve real-world problems?
– Would traditional qualitative research methodologies translate from the digital to the physical space?
• UX of meat space
– What is the user experience of a physical space?
– How do you qualify it / measure it / determine if it’s been improved?
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“We don’t know how to find out
about things we don’t know about.”
– Dana Chisnell, Convey UX 2013
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“How do we reconcile a labour intensive and detail oriented
science like ethnography, which focuses on holistic
contextual understanding of people in a situation, with
something like Agile, which has a structured approach to
quick and dirty development with shiny results?”
– Alicia Dudek, ‘Agile Ethnography: A proposition’
#lostinspace | @Chris_Holmes_UX 1818
Just f#cking do it!
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Where to start?
• Assemble research team
• Interview stakeholders
• Explore the spaces
• Identify the users
• Establish the current user experience
• Unearth the current problems
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Everyone’s a Researcher…
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Everyone’s a Researcher…
• Cover more ground
• Collect more artifacts and user stories
• Shared knowledge
• No need for deliverables
• Interns gained valuable field experience
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The Spaces…The Spaces…
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Top of the POPS…Top of the POPS…
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Top of the POPS…Top of the POPS…
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Top of the POPS…Top of the POPS…
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Top of the POPS…Top of the POPS…
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Top of the POPS…Top of the POPS…
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Slop of the POPS…Slop of the POPS…
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• Stakeholder hostility
• Lack of awareness of rules of use by building owners and security
• How to analyze findings
• No time for deliverables
• Discovering new audiences and avenues of enquiry at every turn
• Size of the problem went way beyond digital
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Advocates & Users
• Social Media
• Empty Space for use
• About this Space
• Map & Location Finder
• Schedule of Events
• Rate a Space
• Report a Problem
Owners & Advocates
• POPS case studies
• Nearby vendor & local business guide for
• Press kit
• Affiliated programs
• Marketplace to rent/lend empty POPS space
City Government & Owners
• Resource library with robust search & filters
• Tips & ideas for updating a space
• Directory of local
developers, architects, landscapers & designers
• Rules & regulations for various types of POPS
• Furniture ideas & options
• Guidelines for maintaining POPS
• Adopt a Space program
• ROI calculator application
Owners & Users
• Social media interaction
• Reporting hotline
• Suggestions and comments
• Schedule of events
• Photo gallery
• Direct user feedback
• Comparative rankings
Solution: Improve Relationships
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Solution: Context of Use…Solution: Context of Use…
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Tips for Young Players…Tips for Young Players…
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Everyone’s a researcher
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Adjust your expectations
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Who the f#ck are you?
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The Frog March
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Soylent Green is people
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• CGBs (Creepy Guy in the Bushes)
• The Noob Tube (or The Rookie Monster)
• Local Yokel (or Look Ma, I’m On TV)
• Boat Show Bikini Theory
• In the Pipe, 5x5 ($5 for 5 Minutes)
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‘Privately Owned Public Space : The New York
City Experience’, by Jerold S. Kayden
Privately Owned Public Space in New York
Municipal Arts Society
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Huge Studio (Mea, Matt & Christian)
Alexis Taylor, MAS
Jerold Kayden, APOPS