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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Caltrain/BART station, Milbrae

Taking Caltrain from Milbrae to Palo Alto led to a little design-related confusion. I got into the BART/Milbrae station with a few minutes to catch the train south. Unfortunately, I had some difficult locating myself in the station, and got little help from this confusing station map:

This map accurately presents a lot of information, but has trouble presenting it in an appropriate format. One obvious problem is that the map has a ton of little notes such as "Paid Area" and "Stairs/Escalator to Concourse". These are very informative but not all that useful. The designer could have served users better by considering that most travelers are mostly interested in getting to their train, bus, or car easily. Knowing which obstacles on the map are "Fare Gates" does not help me much – I know them when I see them, and I am more interested in the big picture.

An appropriate response to the problem of information overload on details maps is to make different sorts of information available for different users. Someone who wants to find a less commonly-used service like the ticket agent can look at a map; others can just look for signs to the common destinations. And the station has those – they're just not too well-implemented either:

If the map was too verbose, this sign's too terse. Here, the writer means "Up [stairs] to [BART connection to the SF] Airport", but that's really too much to deduce, unless one is specifically trying to go to the airport, which presumably does not apply to most commuters through this station.

I made my way from the BART area to the Caltrain tracks with little time to spare. Unfortunately, reaching them presented me with another information- processing challenge, similar to this one:

This was a very frustrating sight, because it forced me to do a lot of extra work to decide which side of the tracks to position myself on. The sign makes it clear which way it is to SF and SJ. But it doesn't make it clear which track an SJ-bound train runs on – and this is a big deal because I have to run up a flight of stairs to get to the other side! In order to use this sign effectively, someone must know that trains generally run on the right-hand track (which does not seem to apply consistently to BART trains) and then figure out which track is the northbound one. I managed an 800 on my math GRE, but this task proved to be too much for me, and I missed the train.