Subway Sounds

New subway cars were recently put in service in New York city. I had my first ride with one of them today, on the 6 line from Astor Place to 59th st. And I don’t like them. It’s not that I generally hate the MTA. In fact, I love New York’s subways. It’s just that I use them every day, so when the MTA does something stupid, I feel compelled to comment on it.





The new cars have many usability problems: The light’s terrible, the materials used are sterile and unfriendly to humans, the colors are ugly. But those problems are not what urged me to write.





What did urge me to write is the recorded voice. The new subway cars have a recorded voice that announces the stations, as well as the all too familiar "Stand clear of the closing doors". The usability of the recorded voices is, at one level, clearly superior to that of the live train operator, which, as you’ll know if you’ve ever taken the subway in New York city, are pretty much inaudible. But why does the recordings have to sound that unnatural?





Something magical seems to happen inside people’s head when their voices are recorded for these purposes. A complete transformation takes place. People start to talk funny. They exaggerate the pronunciation to the extreme.





Think about it for a second. Somewhere at the MTA headquarters, sits the person responsible for overseeing the recordings of these announcements. Let’s say his name is Chris. Chris is a person, a real human being. And Chris has actually, consciously decided that this was the way the recorded voices for his subway cars should sound. Was Chris not thinking? What ears was he using when he heard these dreadful recordings?





Alan Cooper has trick for intuitively assessing the usability of software systems: Pretend the software is a human being. How would we react to a human that acted the way the software does? Very often, we’d be outraged. I’d like to apply the same technique here.





If I was a journalist, I’d find Chris, and ask him out for an interview over lunch. And from the moment we met, and through the whole conversation, I’d speak to him using the same voice as these recordings, the same inhuman pronunciation. I bet, by the end of the meal, he’d have gone crazy. In fact, I think Chris would walk out on me way before the lunch was even over.





Thank you, Chris, for forcing us to listen to this every day!

4 comments

Craig Bolus Apr 8, 2001 02:00am
soothing conductress Agreed -- the recording does sound like a robot. Part of the problem may be that some sentences are pasted together from what must be pre-recorded words or phrases. But yeah, it's pretty lame. I'll never forget the time I was riding the F uptown on the morning of September 13, 2001. The train was of course full of scared, unhappy commuters putting on their bravest faces and going back to work. As we approached my stop, the conductor, an African-American woman with a very soothing voice (a lot like the DJ in the movie The Warriors if anyone's seen that) announced the stop and then said "Remember... take care of each other out there". I was almost completely overcome, and I think a lot of the other passengers were too.
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Anon Ymous Apr 8, 2001 02:00am
Who cares at least you can hear them and understand them. I don't care if they sound like robots or not they are easy to hear and understand unlike the human voices they currently use. The recorded voices I've heard on other systems around the world are similar and I think quite frankly they work. I don't really think they sound like robots at all but they do sound like recordings of human voices. They are not live and they are probably pieced together digitally.
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Leor Farkas Apr 8, 2001 02:00am
I love them that way! Hi, I'm12 years old.I've lived in NY all my life. I love the recordings. I find themvery amusing. And since my hobby is memerizing subway stops, the fake voices make it easier to memerize the recording. This is a brooklyn bridge bound, 6 train.The next stop is 68th st,hunter college!
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Travis Jones Apr 8, 2001 02:00am
I love them too! When am on the number two train heading to school I like to memorize the stops along the way "This stop is 96 street Transfer is available to the 1 and 9 Trains"
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