Wayfinding for the Port Authority of NY & NJ:

A consistent wayfinding system for the AirTrain at JFK Airport

At the John F. Kennedy International Airport, the AirTrain provides access between terminals and connections to subways, buses, and railroad, serving tens of millions of travelers to and from New York City each year.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the agency that owns the AirTrain, hired me to redesign their digital signage. Working with Port Authority and Bombardier, the AirTrain’s operator, I implemented designs that fit within the constraints of their system while addressing common complaints found in user testing.


Representing the route in context

The first issue I tackled was the contrast and clarity of information on the on-screen route diagrams. I removed the heavy 3D gloss and shine and developed a simple, clear system of symbols from which I built endless diagrams showing the train service.

Unlike a more conventional train or subway system, the vast majority of ridership will be first-time or extremely infrequent riders. Few will routinely visit different terminals. Because of this, I prioritized the clarity of each terminal’s diagram over a consistency between all terminals.

For the the Jamaica and Howard Beach trains, which provide service from the terminals to two outer stations which connect to the New York City Subway, it was all the more critical to minimize all but the relevant information for the traveler at a given station. Instead of showing the full system, I show just the direct routes to all other stations.

Finally, to guide customers during times when the trains don’t run on their normal routes due to maintenance, I applied the same principals of clarity. The diagram for all trains running on the same track doesn’t tell the full story of what the full AirTrain system looks like, but it provides clear and concise information on which stops one can access from each train at this platform.

The diagram elements came together on the screen with improved and much larger arrival times for all the trains that will arrive on a specific track, as opposed to just the next train to arrive. This is the largest holistic improvement, ensuring that no matter when you arrive to the platform, you will be able to see where each train stops, even if it’s not the next train to arrive:


Using language to reduce stress

When something isn’t working as expected, such as a train not boarding at a certain door, certain stations being skipped, or even the entire system closing and being replaced by bus service, travelers need to have their anxieties immediately addressed with clear information about how to continue their journey successfully.

The existing designs varied wildly in both verbal and visual tone, often prioritizing negative status information above positive directional information. I divided them into two categories: Boarding Information Screens and Service Advisory Screens.


Boarding Information Screens

A common Boarding Information Screen informed travelers when a train would not board at a specific door or track. The existing design showed a screen with large orange X’s and “CLOSED” in huge text. At a glance, many travelers coming into the station saw this sign and immediately thought the whole station was closed, without any information on where to go next.

I created a much more subtle visual language for Boarding Information Screens that doesn’t look like a warning sign. Most importantly, I rewrote the copy to replace alerts about things gone wrong with positive directions on how to continue the journey:

When the signs need to get travelers’ attention in the case of detours or other unexpected service, bright, simple icons attract the eye without distracting from the messaging:


Service Advisory Screens

The existing Service Advisory Screens were better in terms of passenger confusion, but still varied in design and tone and often failed to effectively communicate what they needed to.

I built off of the foundation set by the Boarding Information Screens with a different “construction” color scheme to highlight this Service Change information.

When AirTrain service is suspended due to maintenance or an incident, the screens show information on alternate shuttle bus service. Previously, the screens would alternate between three different images stating “Station Closed”, “No AirTrain Service”, and bus information shown below. I replaced all three with a single, always-on, informative screen:


Making sure it works

Travelers were surveyed before and after the new digital signage was implemented in Terminal 8. Overall, travelers across all groups (first-time JFK travelers, frequent travelers, and airport staff) found the new signage improved their way-finding experience, and fewer people relied upon asking AirTrain staff for directions.

Based on these results, I provided the AirTrain team with the resources and guidelines for creating maps for the rest of the system. New signage will be implemented on a station-by-station basis over the course of 2019.

In addition to this case study, I wrote more in-depth on my blog about a specific part of the project – figuring out how to best represent the AirTrain system in a small on-screen space.

Read the article »


Handsome image of Adam Fisher-Cox smiling in an autumn setting.

Adam Fisher‑Cox

I'm a pragmatic product and user experience designer with an interest in user-focused, public-good projects. I'm currently on the product team at Talent Inc. in New York, finding new ways to take the complexity out of the job search.

Around the web, I'm posting photos on Instagram, work in progress on Dribbble, and writing about design on Medium.

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