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The UX of Helsinki

The UX of Helsinki

As a seasoned UX designer, I cannot help but spot problems to be solved or unique approaches to solutions everywhere I go.

We recently visited Helsinki in Finland. Experiencing the Nordic countries has always been a goal of mine, to understand their unique way of life – what really is hygge? – and experience first–hand some of the reasons which helps them routinely hit the top spots in the World Happiness reports published yearly by the UN.

Dublin to Helsinki

Retrieved from Google Maps.

As a result of Fathom’s wayfaring work with Translink, I found myself analysing city centre transport, relentlessly testing interfaces and carefully positioned signage while remarking on each carefully planned touchpoint of the experience.  In the case of Helsinki, I found many other great experiences that made me rejoice rather than complain – too much.

We have long ditched traditional maps and instead we rely on a combination of our trusted apps such as Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Apple Maps or Waze to get us where we need to go. Whether we consciously think of it or not, we open these apps routinely and seek to find layout design patterns we can understand and use to navigate, in the most time–efficient way. The ease of navigation around cities is so important. It means cities can continue to attract visitors to bolster their economies, but it also ensures a smooth flow of traffic so that tourism and daily life in a city can live side by side without causing chaos for locals, commuters and families travelling for their daily needs.

helsinki metro map

Helsinki metro map [digital image]. Retrieved from Inat.

I don’t speak Finnish, so I hoped being able to navigate the city well using the various modes of public transport with a 12 and 6–year–old wouldn’t be too cumbersome. 

Over the five days of our trip we saw as much of the coastal city as possible, covering the major tourist spots, such as the Helsinki Cathedral, Market Square and the Finnish Museum of Natural History’s Luomus Galleria.

Here are a few of our Helsinki highlights from our experience as tourists, a family and also admirers of the Scandinavian lifestyle.

Public transport wayfaring


Public transport was robust and very easy to use as a tourist, combining all travel services in one intuitive companion app.

helsinki 2a Mobile App 2018. Available on the App Store.

The app design follows familiar patterns seen on Google Maps which made it easy to understand at the train station as the Helsinki winter wind howled around us.

helsinki 3 Mobile App 2018. Available on the App Store.

The full service was admirable, enabling quick purchase of tickets in simple self–service kiosks which were consistent with the design of the app. Real–time reliable feedback of bus, train and tram arrivals were everywhere, giving the reassurance that if you missed a service, you knew exactly how long you had to wait.

Tickets were issued instantly as QR codes for scanning by ticket operators using their smart phones.

helsinki 4 Mobile App 2018. Available on the App Store.

Situational illustrations accompany information in the mobile app, which help break down language barriers tourists may encounter.

helsinki 2 Mobile App 2018. Available on the App Store.

On all trains, feedback screens show travelers who are unfamiliar with the area and landmarks where they are at each point on their journey. This was invaluable feedback not only for us but for those with hearing difficulties; they didn’t just rely on audio announcements to give updates.

helsinki 6

McCann, M–T. (Photographer). Helsinki public transport [digital image]. Property of author.

Accessibility of public services


The Finn’s well–designed signage instilled in me a sense of calm at every turn. At no point did I feel lost or confused as their number and letter systems on blue backgrounds screamed beautiful clarity. 

I saw the new ‘accessibility logo’ for the first time in the wild which has been updated from the universally used handicap logo. The Finnish state has adopted it throughout their signage in public areas, and it’s a notable improvement to inclusivity. The new logo depicts a wheelchair in motion, with the person’s arm pushing the chair, a welcome progression from the static wheelchair depiction.

helsinki 5

McCann, M–T. (Photographer). Accessibility logo [digital image]. Property of author.

Airport experience


In 2011, Helsinki airport wanted to bring a touch of Finland to the indoor experience and employed the calming earthy serenade by whistling blackbirds, song thrushes, marsh warblers, Blyth’s warblers, robins and willow warblers to the bathroom experience. Their goal was to improve the international traveller’s stress levels. It was unexpected but very relaxing to listen to and a nice considered addition to the customer experience.

Sustainable living


The Finns showed a keen sense of sustainability and awareness of personal choices affecting climate change throughout the city. We spotted many recycling points in key areas that attract a lot of people time and time again to encourage and raise awareness of recycling. Indoor recycling drop–off points could be found right beside shops where people are frequently passing. The Helsinki capital – like some of its relatively close European capitals – had cycling routes everywhere, providing wide cycle paths from the suburbs right into the city centre, again helping to take traffic off the roads.

helsinki 7

McCann, M–T. (Photographer). Helsinki sustainability [digital image]. Property of author.

Smart technology


The Flamingo Wellness spa in the Vantaa region has solved the problem we often face of using swimming pool lockers when we haven’t remembered to bring the relevant coins. They had an easy waterproof digital wristband key for all ages to wear. We received our wristbands at the desk, and could load them up with virtual cash to spend contactlessly in the internal restaurant beside the pool or around the complex. When getting changed, each adult or child’s band activated and shut their locker at a swipe of the wrist. This made the language barrier a non–issue and – as a parent – I had no extra coins or keys to carry or worry about, maximising our stress–free fun time.

One challenge

If I was to pick out one challenge with the city experience in Helsinki, it would be that they lacked a tourist ‘hub’ or office to help arm tourists a little more quickly with the main must–visit sites and places. It didn’t feel like tourism is a promotional focus in the city, but it also didn’t prevent us wayfinding our own path with the help of Google maps, TripAdvisor and the HSL trains and trams.

Helsinki public transport

Left: Sp, Katherin (Photographer). Bike rack disguised as a car [digital image]. Retrieved from Pinterest. Right: Yaya. (Photographer). Helsinki tram [digital image]. Retrieved from Hand Baggage Only.

Through our experience it was clear that Helsinki is an inclusive, young, hip and architecturally interesting city. 

Most cities aim to create a tourist experience that is easy to follow and memorable. In five days we achieved what we set out to do, while understanding a little better what helps gain Helsinki the title of Europe’s sixth most liveable city.

UX rating for Helsinki

4.2 / 5



By MT McCann

Marie–Therese was UX Designer, Senior UX Designer and UX Lead at Fathom from May 2015 to August 2020, when she left to take up a UX Lead role at Eso.

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