Walkable Downtown Minneapolis is a pitch I delivered to the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District during a university course called User Experience in Design. It's a simple, no-frills video meant to deliver the pitch in an easily shareable medium. This campaign highlights the walkability of downtown Minneapolis through location-specific information pieces that reveal the walk time, in minutes, to just a few key points of interest.
The Downtown Improvement District (DID) approached our class to pitch ideas for improving the user experience of downtown Minneapolis. We were given quite a bit of freedom to propose anything we saw fit, but the DID encouraged us to focus on ideas that would be implementable in time for the upcoming Major League Baseball All-Star Game coming to Minneapolis for the first time in Summer 2014.
Towards the end of our initial meeting with DID, the client mentioned how great it would be to get visitors to walk more. Walking downtown means that visitors see more of the city and perhaps shop more at local businesses. I could tell that this idea meant a lot to the client, so I decided to focus my efforts on a pitch that somehow incorporated walking.
I began my research with a photo study of downtown Minneapolis. The photo study was a required element of the project and completed very early in the process, so I approached it completely open to anything. I chose to drive downtown on a Sunday afternoon, find parking, buy a coffee, and shop around for a pair of jeans — I figured this was a pretty typical set of experiences for a downtown visitor. View the photo study report here:
Through this photo study, I learned that downtown is pretty dead on a cold Sunday afternoon. More importantly, I learned that navigating the maze of skyway connections can be difficult, even stressful. I also came to understand the competition between indoor and outdoor spaces in downtown Minneapolis, and I saw why the DID wants to encourage more outdoor walking – it's much easier to find your way around!
The photo study didn't lead to any grand epiphanies about getting visitors to walk more, but it did give me a better sense of the feeling of downtown by helping me empathize with the kinds of people my pitch would be targeting.
The photo study got me interested in perceptions of downtown walking. Specifically, I wanted to know how locals perceived the walkability of downtown Minneapolis. I created a simple online survey and let it loose on the internet to ask a series of questions like this: How long do you think it takes to walk from point A to point B? With fifteen responses from people claiming to be at least somewhat familiar with downtown, I got a pretty clear sense that the average person doesn't really know how long it takes to walk around downtown Minneapolis.
The survey made it clear that walk times are not generally well known, even by Minneapolis residents. This means that visitors asking for walking directions from locals might not be getting the best advice on travel time. This research was quick and dirty, but it helped me justify a focus on walk times specifically.
Next, I did a bit of research to compare other cities' solutions to promote walking. View that report here:
This comparative audit offered lots of helpful context without too much time investment. I found cities developing apps to help commuters make better informed decisions about walking/biking/bussing. I also found communities taking a much simpler approach of printing signs to display the walk time to local attractions. I brought all these ideas into my next client meeting to deliver three quick pitches and see which idea resonated the most.
Brainstorm Design Proposals
We brought the clients back in for a quick meeting to pitch them three loosely outlined ideas. This gave them the chance to see where we were heading and influence the direction towards ideas that they were more likely to implement. View those slides here:
For this pitch, I was given five minutes to explain all three ideas. I really like explaining ideas, five minutes was a helpful constraint. I spoke pretty quickly but with an intensity that seemed to add some excitement to the pitch. When I finished right at the five minute mark, I think someone actually applauded.
The client found the app idea to be inspiring but unfeasible for quick roll-out and the temporary signage to be a bit too messy. They were much more interested in the simplicity of targeted print pieces and ads in key downtown hotels. To be honest, I was a bit surprised that they chose my first idea – I intentionally planted my favorite idea at the end – but that's exactly why this session was so useful. I didn't know exactly what they would like, which idea they could really get behind, and by putting some real ideas in front of them, I got another step deeper into their mindset.
I focused my remaining effort on developing a prototype print piece for hotels.
- The maps will be simple. It’s goal is not to locate businesses or specifically navigate the city (there are plenty of maps and apps for that). The goal is to show how much of downtown is within a reasonable walking distance (1 hour round trip).
- The maps will be user-specific. After developing a common basemap, hotel-specific maps can be made and distributed to their respective hotels. 8.5x11 sheets could be placed in every room and a larger version could be made into a poster to display in the lobby.
- The maps will focus on minutes. We plan our days based more on time than distance. Realizing that you can walk to the museum and back in an hour is simple, actionable information.
- Maintain a good balance of Signal to Noise. Seeing where your hotel is, and its walk time areas are most important. Clearly visible walkable streets are the next most important, followed by key points of interest, then general districts (Mill District, Warehouse District, Nicollet Mall, Theater Cooridor, etc.).
- Find a balance between usability and flexibility. Map design should be flexible enough to easily generate new versions for specific hotels, but still usable to specific users by optimizing the design of each hotel’s map.
- Maintain DID branding, but offer a simple way for the hotel to integrate the map data into their own piece if desired.
With these goals in mind, I developed my first prototype:
My instructor gave me good feedback that the prototype was on the right track, but its purpose needed to be even more obvious. With this draft, I had attempted to follow the DID branding by strictly following their color-scheme, but I decided to break out of that a bit so I could really highlight the center point of the map as the first thing the viewer's eye should catch. I also decided to "zoom out" a bit to include more of the city and change the orientation to accommodate more information below. In the space below, I showed walk times to local points of interest which helped reduce clutter on the map and added even more simplicity to understanding the point of the map.
Here's the final version I showed in the pitch, front side first, then back side:
I proposed a campaign to highlight the walkability of downtown Minneapolis through location specific information pieces that reveal the walk time, in minutes, to a just few key points of interest.
The core concept of the campaign is that downtown Minneapolis is walkable. “From your hotel, you could walk to most of downtowns’ attractions in 30 minutes or less.” What makes the message actionable is making each piece location-specific. “Walk from here to the Stone Arch Bridge in 23 minutes.”
I propose three elements for rolling out this campaign: hotel-specific print pieces, street-level advertisements and signage, and an online interactive map.
If you want to learn more about the final pitch, I suggest you watch the video.
The clients really liked my pitch. Fortunately, they filled out feedback forms, so I can share a few quotes taken directly from those forms:
"Actionable + reasonable + affordable + fun. Good job."
"Well done. Great execution.
"I want to marry this pitch."
Here are a few of my favorite lessons learned from this project:
- The client cannot always articulate what they want in the first meeting. Showing them a few somewhat developed initial ideas or prototypes and witnessing their reaction might give you a much more accurate sense of what they really want. Doing this before you invest too much effort into one idea can save everyone a lot of time and sanity.
- Don't bother pitching anything you're not willing to implement. If you lead with what you think is the weakest idea, and finish with the strongest, they still might choose your first idea. Really the take away is to stay flexible, and never believe you know exactly how someone will react to something.
- Deliver pitches in the present tense. Don't say what the product could be, or even will be – describe what the product is. Describe your concept as if it already exists and you might just summon it into actual existence. I was a little uncomfortable with this style at first, but after I played back the video to myself, I realized that it just made sense. It seems to have really worked well – after I finished playing the video, my first question from the clients was: "Why doesn't this already exist?"
- Big ideas are what I live for, but sometimes it's the smallest ideas that actually get done. Because this was a class project, I chose to keep my idea super simple and easy to implement because I wanted my idea to live beyond the assignment. Bigger ideas are so much fun, but they require lots of people to get on board and much more client-designer trust than can be established in a half-semester college course. I intentionally made my idea so simple that they could implement it almost immediately and it looks like they may do just that.
Our DID representative told us that he liked the pitch so much, he showed the video during his meeting with Major League Baseball about the upcoming All Star Game in Minneapolis. Apparently, they liked the idea as well and there's a chance the might actually put it into action in the near future. There are no promises, but if you see a Walkable Downtown Minneapolis campaign in the future, you'll know where it came from.
The Downtown Improvement District implemented my concept in kiosk posters around downtown Minneapolis! I thought they might modify my prototype design, but their final version resembled mine quite closely. Here's the DID artwork, then a comparison with my design:
It's great to see classroom work actually implemented by the client. I'm very grateful to Ben Shardlow for championing my concept with the DID and getting it put on the streets of Minneapolis.
Here's a page from the DID Annual Report, highlighting the collaboration:
Read the full DID Annual Report here.