How might we iterate upon LinkNYC’s design and its services to empower and engage New York’s homeless population and the communities that interact with them?


Urban Interaction Design, UX/UI Design, User Research

LinkNYC is a communications network of kiosks, called Links, that is being installed across New York City. According to their website, they expect to have 7,500 Links installed throughout the 5 boroughs over the next several years. The network provides completely free high-speed Wi-Fi, phone calls to anywhere in the U.S. and device charging. It also has a touch screen tablet for access to city services, maps and directions, and a 911 Emergency Call button.

The first Links were installed in 2015 and since then they have reshaped how the streets of New York look, but more importantly, they have reshaped how New Yorkers behave and interact on the streets. As the young technology launched, its developers have been able to really see how users interact with the Links. While some use it exactly as intended by making a call, or searching for a location on the map, “they have also attracted people who linger for hours, sometimes drinking and doing drugs and, at times, boldly watching pornography on the sidewalks” (New York Times, 2016).

With a potential user population of 8.5 million people approximately, there is a real challenge to design a product that is usable and accesible to all users, regardless of age, technology literacy, education level or income. Therefore, for our graduate class on Urban Interaction Design, we were assigned to study the LinkNYC network and research in particular how the homeless population in New York interacts with it. After performing a thorough investigation, we would then provide design and technology solutions to improve the accessibility of the homeless to LinkNYC’s services.


The first step was to research the homeless population in New York as well as learn in-depth about the technology, the interface and how users are interacting with it.

My and my group researched online and held short interviews with people within our goal audience. We asked them about their technology habits with other devices such as smartphones and desktops, and about their familiarity with LinkNYC and its online services. We found out that about half of the homeless population has a smartphone, but they lacked the digital literacy to know how to use the internet services such as browsing the internet or checking an email account.

We also discovered that LinkNYC has a specific shortcut providing access to social services through an indexing service called Aunt Bertha. Although the shortcut was clearly visible in the home screen, the interface of the service needed an update to better suit the needs of the users that interact with it. And perhaps it also needed to reconsider its name.

The Social Services shortcut needed to:

  • Improve usability and accessibility of its interface to better help the homeless

  • Take better advantage of the size and orientation of the LinkNYC screen

  • Rebrand into a name easily memorable and recognizable


Based on our research we concluded that three action items would have the most positive impact at helping the homeless access the social services tools available in the LinkNYC:

  1. Rebranding ‘Aunt Bertha’ to a stronger brand that’s easily memorable and recognizable

  2. Update the Social Services user interface to take full advantage of the big screen available at the LinkNYC stations

  3. Provide learning sessions and tutorials on digital literacy to the homeless, as some of them don’t know how to navigate the internet or perform tasks such as checking email

The combination of these action items would make the existing social services tool more usable and accessible to the homeless population in New York. This is an impactful way to positively improve their lives by giving them autonomy above all.

When redesigning the user interface, we followed Microsoft’s Inclusive Toolkit Manual as guidance for the best practices on how to make our design as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Along with the updated interface, we rebranded ‘Aunt Bertha’ to Spark, which would be the brand within LinkNYC that encompasses the whole umbrella of social services tools within the network.

To further expand adoption of the tool among the homeless community, we also designed an event series where specialist and volunteers would provide tutorials and information on how to access the services available through LinkNYC. This would allow them to gain independence by being able to find and access the tools they need by themselves.


To further expand adoption among the community, we also designed an event series where specialist and volunteers would provide tutorials and information to the homeless population on how to access the services available through LinkNYC. This would allow them to gain independence by being able to find and access these services by themselves.