How the MTA Introduced the Touch Screen to New York City

In a recent piece for Next City writer and illustrator Aaron Reiss looks at the design of the MTA’s automated ticket kiosk. As a germaphobe, Reiss hates the amount of screen-touching the MTA kiosk requires, but as he investigates the history of the machine and meets with its creator he begins to understand the reasoning behind the design:

The first thing [the machine’s creator, industrial designer Masamichi] Udagawa did was to provide some context for the realities of New York City in the late 1990s, when the MTA ticket vending system was being developed. What I hadn’t realized before was exactly how novel these machines were at the time.

“This was the first time a touchscreen was really [going to be] introduced to the public [in New York City],” remembered Udagawa. “When [the MTA ticket] machine came out in 1999, 50 percent of subway riders didn’t have bank accounts, so they had no experience with ATMs, let alone touch screens.”

It’s interesting to note here how in the late 1990s the ATM could be used as both an inspiration and as a cautionary tale. Remember, the iPhone was a good seven years off and touchscreens were far less common than they are today. That guided Antenna’s design in a major way. “It was a different world in ’99, even if it was only 15 years ago,” Udagawa said.

The issue is perhaps best illustrated by Udagawa’s explanation of the “Press to Start Screen,” one of the features of the MTA design that most niggled at me.

A huge number of people who tested early mock-ups of the machine were at a complete loss when met with the new touchscreens, he said.

At this point, I was beginning to see the problems with my hyper-efficient ideas of trimming excess screens. I was quickly grasping that the system I battled with daily was created for a different time.

In the late ‘90s, when Udagawa and his team were hired by the MTA to make the machines more user-friendly, riders had a very different relationship with technology and in particular, with technology in the public realm.

Aaron Reiss, writing for Next City. 

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