Future Urban Experience and Interfaces

An interview with Sergey Tomilov on influence of digital on urban life by Alexander Ayoupov

Read intro

An interview with Sergey Tomilov

An interview by Alexander Ayoupov

Sergey Tomilov participates in the design of different services and interfaces for Yandex. While working mostly on mobile interfaces (Yandex.Music, the first version of Yandex.Search, iPad Yandex.Search), the list of products he has been involved in is not limited to mobile platforms. Now he is responsible for keeping up-to-date the design of personal services such as Yandex.Disk, Yandex.Photos and Yandex.Mail
Hide intro

One of the large projects conducted by the Strelka Institute is the research into future urbanism. The aim of this interview – as far as I understand it – is to reflect my own perception of future urbanism and find a suitable expert of my choice. I would like to discuss this topic with you as a specialist in the user experience and user interface fields. Also I would like to establish the connection between these fields.

The connection definitely exists. We don’t like the usage of the term ‘user experience’ as it is very shabby. We are designers, and these fields are covered by designing and planning. Generally you cannot separate user experience from design. Everything you do – if it is published afterwards – is the subject of a person’s reaction. That’s why everything you have a hand in will relate to user experience.


I recently read an article in ‘The city in your hands’ blog, on how apps are changing the city’s public space. But I would like to ask you not only about the matter of public spaces, but the city itself, how it is changing. For instance, the Yandex.Traffic service allows you to track road situations in real time and choose your own route. Do you think Moscow would be different if there were no Yandex services and Yandex itself?

In my opinion, I can say that Yandex is very active in making the city more human oriented. Our traffic app, for example, solves a problem for the driver who takes the same route every day. While solving the traffic jam problem we learned how to avoid gridlocks in a very efficient way, by using all the side-​streets and alleyways. We learnt how to unload the traffic burden on the city.

It seems like you are providing a decent tool for the whole city.

Exactly. People are using this tool and at the same time helping to improve its overall efficiency. I was very much surprised that people understood the way it works. A normal driver, a taxi-​driver for example, realises that if he has Yandex.Maps launched, he is part of a big system. A part on which the system depends in calculating if there is a traffic jam or not. There is no magic here, people just understand the way it goes. Last year our knowledge and the amount of data reached the point where it became possible for us to easily predict the possible level of traffic jams. Now we can recommend whether you should set out immediately or stay at home for a while. Without this service Moscow drivers would suffer more from traffic jams, and maybe the city itself too.

Are there any other services having an impact on the city? Yandex.Taxi, for example?

Yandex.Taxi is a partner programme, an aggregation service. It also fits in the concept of changing the city and erases the borders between the Internet and real life. You just want to get from A to B in the city.

Like a teleport?

Almost; you press the button on your phone, then you go out – and the car is already there. And if you are drunk – then yes, that’s a teleport. You pushed the button – and got home. We also have other services which are changing the city landscape indirectly, where IT-​techs have an indirect influence. For example, we have Panoramas on Yandex.Maps. I use it personally to get some idea of a distant place without leaving home. That is also a kind of a teleport – a mental one. You can rotate a house, see the nearby street, understand where to go.

My mom was once visiting Moscow. I went to work. She was afraid to go anywhere: Moscow is huge, the Metro is confusing, with lots of people everywhere. I left my iPad at home. She managed to switch it on even though she is not so good with gadgets. When I returned in the evening, I asked how her about her day. And she told me that she had seen almost everything she needed. Mom was able to find Panoramas on Yandex.Maps, then all the streets she wanted to go to, saw all the photos and – finally – got the feeling of the city without being actually out there.

This is an example of another tool helping one to navigate through the city. You have an insurance against the mistakes you can make on the spot. You can reach your destination without thinking, relying only on your visual memory.

Same story happens with navigators. There is already a generation of drivers (or even more than one) who cannot orient themselves visually. Also there are some believable stories, like the one where a girl ended up in a lake because the navigator in her Mercedes was showing a bridge that wasn’t there.

Teleport / mercurialn / flickr.com

Am I right that in these cases a person stops reflecting the reality and starts to use the reflection of reality provided by a gadget?

Yes. if I choose to drive in Moscow with the help of a navigator, I would reach the destination quickly missing all the traffic jams. I would succeed, although I would not see the city itself. It would make no difference for me what surrounded my car. I wouldn’t need any external reference points. That would be exactly the augmented reality people have been talking about recently. But in the opposite way.

I think that one of the key things in common between the work of a designer and an urbanist is creating of systems that are convenient for a user. Can you – as a specialist in design – provide me with any examples of good and bad solutions in the urban environment?

We are constantly practising this kind of search. You are always looking at how the design works, trying to see things which you can change and improve. And the city is what you cannot leave physically, it surrounds you.

Certainly, you see everything starting with your own courtyard. Mine has a mini-​playground for children with a rubber coating and two benches and a basketball court with low rings surrounded by a high fence on one side. At the other side of the yard another fence encloses a micro-​park which has two trees, no benches, and pigeon droppings. The latter is the zone near the doorways, where everyone passes by. So, there is a bench right near the entrance to the house with constant ‘babushkas’ sitting there and another one populated with kids and teenagers. And this zone is fenced off, there is nothing there, it’s very dirty. It’s a pigeons’ nest. That’s just disgusting.

Are there any good solutions? Like the object for which you understand why it is there and how well exactly it solves the problem? I think it’s rather easy to have an eye only for bad solutions.

I have to think. That’s the same thing as in interfaces: people don’t mention the good solutions, they just use them. If the solution is not convenient, they make a row. As I remember from marketing studies: 10 positive feedbacks equals one negative.

I have some good examples, though. There are streets which have been pedestrianised. Stoleshnikov Lane and all the rest in the pedestrian zone. We were there in summer, there was a new bar opening. The owners did it in a European style – very welcoming with large windows open. There were some problems with comfort inside. The owners did their best to create an atmosphere – and then you see Cayennes rushing right under your nose. And then we returned there in autumn. I got out from the Metro into the street and suddenly felt something had changed. Wide sidewalks, no cars, people were strolling; perfect! And you have a feeling that this place is awesome and someone had really cared about the people, had thought about the pedestrians. I have a distorted perception, I see the city from a pedestrian point of view. I really approve of all the pedestrian zones and paid parking spaces up to the borders of Garden Ring, what with me living inside the Ring.

I have some interesting observations as a designer. The urban environment is a subject of discussion between all the authors that designers respect and read. When you read enough you start to notice some things. We traveled to New York last winter, we stayed in Manhattan. For instance, our yard had a chess table, which was literally a stone plate. It was impossible to steal it, even bearing in mind that we were in Harlem. Even 20 people wouldn’t manage it.

What is the difference in garbage disposal between our dormitory districts and their approach? My friend described Yuzhnoye Butovo in one sentence: “They have garbage containers right in front of the house entrances.” It means that the people were too lazy to take their garbage to a refuse area – a house always has a zone for that – and that they were dumping it everywhere. And so the containers were moved nearer to the users. This kind of citizen behavior could describe whole district, so you can understand what you might encounter there.

Then, back in Harlem, faced with our question on how to dispose of the garbage, our landlord lingered for a while and said: “Take it easy, I’ll come and throw it all out .” You need to know the exact time that a dust-​cart arrives. The other options are either living in garbage or getting fined. You have the responsibility to the city.

If you agree that urbanists and designers do similar things, how do you think one can best set them a task?

A good and thoughtful urbanist as well as a good designer has to improve not the existing, good-​looking or already working things, he has to apply himself to those projects with still a long way to go. If a designer is copying Instagram or Facebook – products already existing and working – he is just wasting his energy in the wrong direction. The same thing happens with urbanists: improvement of the city centre is fun. One can see what nice features he can find and implement. The centre already has tourists, working people, meatballs, why not implement just another feature? What about a park at Babushkinskaya?! There is nothing there. No meatballs, no features, nothing. It is not central, but how many people are living around there? Urbanists need to go out to the fields.

Moscow has its cool places, but the suburbs are dead. The right thing to do is to create cool stuff everywhere

I lived in Babushkinskaya for almost a year. Why have I relocated here, to Yakimanka? I had no sense of living in a city. I’ve traveled a bit around the world. Moscow has its cool places, but the suburbs are dead. The right thing to do is to create cool stuff everywhere. Probably with a different approximation, but cool. It would be great if some of these districts, any of these zones could have their own specialities, cafes and bars. You have to walk and search for what can be repaired instead of painting the fence green.


If I remember rightly, the process of computer systems development usually looks like a constant iterative cycle: think, code, test, receive comments and bug-​reports, continue. There are several interesting projects dedicated to self-​regulation of the city and improvement of relationship between citizens and executive power: RosYama, RosZhKH, Our City, What Moscow Wants? What are the ways to improve the feedback from citizens to urbanists if there are any?

I will try to answer from the other side. Feedback is always a question of one’s needs. These projects are good, they are describing the needs clearly. There are some tools, though, which could be of interest to the urbanists: Analytics. Analytics is the right answer.

Yandex is conducting experiments, we have our own laboratory. When we are about to release a new product we always use behavioural analysis. For example I was developing a mobile app for Yandex.Music. My task was set like this: “We have big Yandex.Music, we need a mobile app for it. We don’t know how to do it. You are the ‘mobile’ guy, you know this stuff better. Just develop it.” I didn’t know whether the end result would be the right thing. I ordered the app from the developers and eventually got the prototype. Then came the time for testing. We called in people, common users, and formed a testing group. Then the task for our testers was to play a song with this app. Madonna – Frozen. And then they just pressed somewhere. They press – we observe. And then a problem emerges. The problem is that we are giving the task. A tester, probably, wanted to listen to Madonna by his own will and, again probably, to achieve it he would’ve pressed in a different way or used different controls, or even explored all the interface or a part of it. But in lab conditions he has to get an A, as though he were standing in front of a blackboard. He chooses the fastest way and surely would receive a correct answer. That is the lab research problem taken as a whole. He couldn’t even know what you expect from him, but he has to answer and get an A. He cannot expose himself as a fool.

Tools / intel free press / flickr.com

Socially expected answers?

More of an ‘excellent student’ syndrome. Even if a person has never been an excellent student and now he is a grown-​up 40 year old man, he cannot be a fool in anybody’s eyes. But we want to observe a C-​student, a person who does things unconsciously, without thinking. People are moving their gaze around a screen, but we know that no-​one reads the search results, people just scan through it, extracting just a few words. I have a very simple description of my own for such behaviour. A person has a lot of flies in his head and eyes like two cameras. This person just caught the nearest fly to a camera. That fly is my everything, he says. And every interface looks the same in any moment. A person sees something familiar – and instantly runs towards it.

Imagine, you’re walking along a street in a completely unknown city. And then your sight stumbles upon a familiar ad or a brand sign. And then you understand that you can get a burger and cola here.

Exactly. I went to Bangalore, one of the megapolises, very young, with a lot of IT companies opened recently. Where can I find decent food? McDonald’s, for sure. I would seek for a foothold, for something known, where I can avoid making mistakes. In this unknown city I would survive at least the first day, because now I’m going to eat this rajah-​burger.

Let’s go back to the lab. What are the other tools for urban use?

Yandex is working with big data. We have indicators, metrics and counters for every user’s action – of course they are anonymous, not linked to a particular person. And we are backtracing all the movements a person does, what he does, how he does it, how often and for how long. Analysts calculate it and examine creating some sort of heat maps. We hold a lot of researches when we show a product to a tester on a monitor. We use eye-​tracker to check different assumptions. For instance, so-​called “warming-​up of a page”. Zones which are viewed the most by a tester are coloured in a deeper red. Based on this we receive a heat map. Then we combine this tester’s map affected by the lab factor with a map of clicks from Internet page usage. That’s not exactly what I’m doing. That’s the work of the guys from the lab. For example, we created a new design and users started to look at the whole page instead of focusing on a single item on it. That means we did our job well. People see the information they haven’t been noticing before. We build these heat maps based on what a user usually does. And we conduct this observation continually.

Can you imagine ways of using eye-​tracking in the urban environment?

Let’s assume we have a system of cameras. Big Brother. A simple example: hang cameras on a house, each of them would map walking people with red dots. And implementation of this system appears when you start thinking where walkways should be made on the lawns. You don’t have to do them intentionally, you just have to watch where people usually to walk on lawns.

City of the future has to be built on big data and analysis

Another option is to watch how people exit Metro stations and walk away to their blocks. The city of the future has to be built on big data and analysis. The more you can predict and control the behaviour of people, the more high-​quality design you can produce.

Are there any ways to demonstrate the possible changes in the city to the citizens?

There is a nice development idea of rapid prototyping. Any scenario could be divided into several small scenarios, any big necessity could be divided into small ones. This rule works pretty well in design. If you have a big problem, divide it into tasks and exact goals. Produce a thousand benches and fill a district with them. Then observe which benches are popular and which are not and why it happens so. You have to create something that a person can use, the simplest, the cheapest. And then see what happens next.

Another approach to rapid prototyping is to build models of architectural and urban projects in a 1:1scale. That could be a real study of user experience and the main argument in urban competitions.


The city of the future, is it convenient for a user, for a citizen? Let’s assume that everyone has become supermobile and can go everywhere. We were talking about some footholds – a common sign system, brands, language. If we need to have these footholds in every city, do we really have to support globalisation?

I’m totally supportive of globalisation. I’m attracted by cyberpunk. All these state borders are so obsolete.

Are you aware of Neal Stephenson’s concept of franchise states?


In short, state borders are almost abolished, every city is divided between so called Franchise-​Owned Quasi-​National Entities, each having its own guidebooks on what has to be built and how the business process has to be run. Is it close to your beliefs?

Yes, it fits. I suppose our civilisation would benefit from globalisation. Most of the problems that we have are a result of miscommunication. We would have less borders. Yes, cyberpunk. I don’t get why we are not there already.

Cyberpunk / cosmo flash / flickr.com

Cyberpunk sci-​fi writers interweave computer technologies into the structure and the fabric of the city heavily – from almost total deanonimisation of citizens to the next generation of smart housing. What technology, from your point of view, would be the most progressive in the nearest future, in this century? Could this technology make life happier?

I suppose that the most progressive technology would be implantation of a universal chip. Every child born has to have it. It would probably even be grown inside our bodies. This chip is watching you, it’s your passport. Imagine, you are entering the airport and you don’t have to do anything, you just go to the plane. No security checks, no passport checks, no need to stand in a line. You just board the plane and fly. The state already knows everything it needs. NFC has already been introduced, it just needs to be finished off.

And would it make me happy?

I assume it won’t make you happy. But as for your kid, growing up with this chip, it would. Man adapts. The kid would take this as normal. Every crime in the world would be conscious, because you know that you are constantly being tracked. Everyone should know where am I and what I do.

Okay, what about the issue of a government being able to use it as a repressive mechanism?

I’m a cyberpunk believer. States should not exist anymore. There must only be corporations that exploit you for their benefit.

And everything has to be transparent and open?

Yes. You have to work for a business with plain rules: we are giving you benefits in exchange for your work and, yes, we are getting our benefits.

A fair trade.


In this kind of future is it possible to run your own business?

Sure. There has to be small and medium businesses. And competition. Without the competition there would be no development. And there should be decentralised management. This idea is alien to us, because we feel that we would be under surveillance and that is uncomfortable. People born into this new environment would think another way.

What else? Absolutely open and personal voting of citizens on questions of what they want and who has to provide the solution. And freedom of choice, obviously.

Talking about the freedom of choice, what are the criteria for choosing a place to live?

What should be the city or a district for you to move in there?.. It’s better to do product solving concrete problem.

Suppose that you have a certain level of comfort and wealth and mobility. What should a city or a district be like for you to move in there? I’ll draw a parallel with design, engineering activity. When I speak to my colleagues, I insist that they must not create a product for everyone. It doesn’t work. There would always be dissatisfied customers. And eventually everyone would be dissatisfied. It’s better to make a product solving a concrete problem. A niche product, if you like.

Take music, for instance. We are making Yandex.Music for you so that you can listen to various tracks from a big music base. If you don’t know what you would like to listen to, we will provide you with a recommendation. Yes, we know what is popular. We will pick music for you from our base. Or we will take Soundcloud, another music service. They have mixes and collections there. And then you listen to a playlist composed by a DJ. And this composition has its own mood, feelings. As an example, DJ Shadow was performing live in Amsterdam. After that he uploaded his live records onto Soundcloud personally. This is also about the music, but it’s different. I would never learn from Yandex.Music that DJ Shadow had published his work live. The difference is in the positioning of a product. I will select a city or a district depending on some basic realised opportunities, on the way my soul fibres respond. If we take clothes or cars – it’s still the same. If you are wearing Columbia, you will be warm. Or if you choose an O’Neill snow jacket – you are a snowboarder, a cool guy. But it’s only a jacket in which you will be riding the Metro all through the winter!

If I understand you correctly, we need a diversity of cities to choose from, which solve concrete problems.

Exactly. There are a lot of vivid examples. Silicon Valley – a mass of contacts with überclever people. San Francisco — half of the city is from Google, you can find a programmer in any bar. London – every bar has someone who plays music, here’s the album, just listen to it. Los Angeles – every taxi-​driver has a film script with him.


I don’t know what Moscow is. Milan is a city of fashion. These are all brands of cities. And people are going to these cities, enforcing the existing brand. Even if it was shaky, it becomes less so.

Who would go to the land of Grandfather Frost? Who would go to Veliky Ustyug?

Who needs him? Who in the world has heard of Grandfather Frost? Everyone knows Santa Claus. I would rather go to a city which solved the problem of cold. Imagine a city in winter in the middle of Russia where it is hot. You would like to spend the entire winter there. You just need to create heated sidewalks and build a dome above. But it couldn’t be the whole city, just its districts. The same for New York. It has a nice division into zones: here are the designers, here is Chinatown, here is a poor district with its crime. And then you understand where you would like to live.

I think that such zoning and positioning could be done using different criteria: a district for a young family with kindergartens, schools, a dairy; a district for pensioners with its community, hospitals and amenities corresponding to their needs; a sports district and so on. The main feature of such a city could be in its different parts having a good will contest between them.