August 29, 2013 - Comments Off on The UX of Shinjuku Station

The UX of Shinjuku Station

Sitting at the heart of Tokyo – home to more than 13 million people – is Shinjuku Station, which has the distinction of being the busiest railway station in the world.

Opened in 1885, the station’s 36 platforms run trains for five different companies carrying 3.64m people  every day.  Shinjuku has over 200 exits, a fairly extensive shopping village for feeding those commuters, near countless numbers of luggage lockers and – as evidenced by a man who tops six foot two – distressingly low ceilings at times.

And as much as Shinjuku is worth a visit for its bars and cat cafes, (if you are of that mind set) it’s also to see the efficiency in which the world’s busiest transport hub is run.  Read or watch – if you will – stories of people being literally forced onto trains. But my experience (limited to a day as it was) was that the Japanese railway system ran on a user experience concept of singular use.

Each line services a single train and stations are not bottlenecks on the system as they are on the aging post-Beeching British Railways.  The Yamanote Line (clockwise), for example, stops at Shinjuku platform 15 and no other train ever does, so any problems only ever affects a single train on a single line.  In Japan a train is considered late if it runs thirty second after it should.  They are obviously doing something right.

Which is where we arrive at the idea of user experience and what we can take from Shinjuku Station.  Each of the station’s 3.64 million users is given a single journey to go through.  There is no need to check the board to locate your train – anyone who has been pinged around the platforms of Leeds waiting for the 18:10 to Bradford Forster Square will testify to the “user experience” of that – because it can only be in one place.  One knows, as a rail user, that no matter what the other 3,639,999 people are doing that day, you only need to get to your platform.

This synchronisation of disparate needs is a lesson for us UX professionals.  Users arrive at a website with a task in mind, just as commuters arrive at Shinjuku.  Their tasks only rarely overlap, but we need to provide clear track towards their goals.  Those goals – like the passengers of Shinjuku – will probably start and end beyond the remit of the website.

And just as no one goes to a station to experience a train – they get on a train to go to a destination – no one uses a website (in practical terms – there are exceptions) without having a goal in mind that they want the site to take them towards. They come with baggage that you have to have somewhere to store too.  That will be what the lockers are for.

The modernisation of the railway in Japan happened following the defeat in World War II with much of the country’s rebirth being in adherence to the maxim of a man known as Edwards R. Deeming, who offered to the ages the phrase: “If you can’t say what you doing in terms of a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”

This perhaps is the key to understanding our users.  Not in terms of the journeys they are on while they are on our website, but as wider journeys in the context of the rest of their lives – and how our role in that process is to help them get from where they are to where they want to be.