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!