The role of research in great digital placemaking
Quality begets quality.
Key to delivering a successful digital placemaking project is high quality research. If you are commissioning or designing a location-based digital system (e.g. a service, product or experience) it’s strong, rigorous and holistic research findings that should be the bedrock of your project – not your assumptions, or someone else’s.
In this article I’m turning our attention to a wonderful project currently in development at Calvium (working title ‘NavSta’) to illustrate what solid research for digital placemaking can look like. NavSta is a mobile wayfinding application to enable people with less visible impairments to navigate railway stations independently and with confidence. By providing the information that passengers need when they need it, NavSta aims to reduce the causes of anxiety when travelling through stations, or when thinking about travelling through them.
The project is funded by Innovate UK and aims to improve the passenger experience when travelling on the railway network. As such, NavSta will provide practical assistance to people when they plan a journey, undertake a journey and manage uncertainty during a journey. That sounds fairly straightforward but when you dig into the activities that are necessary to provide such a service, the complexity is swiftly apparent (see Fig. 1).
To ensure that we design and deliver a service that meets the needs of the end users, i.e. the travellers and those who sometimes support them, it’s essential that all aspects of the diagram above are investigated. For what we are developing is a system that needs to take into consideration simultaneously the needs of travellers, the real world context of a train station – including station staff, a raft of data and patchy connectivity. The design of the service, and the location-based system underpinning it, will be informed by all of these elements and more.
The right partners
To deliver a project of this type and with this ambition it was vital to build the right team. Calvium is partnering with Transport for London (TfL), Open Inclusion and the Connected Places Catapult to deliver NavSta. What do each of them bring to the project? As well as key domain expertise they also make up a team that has research and innovation at its heart.
Last month I had the pleasure of presenting the research approach for NavSta at the Connected Places Catapult in London. I was joined by the terrific Tom Pokinko, Research Director of Open Inclusion, who is an inclusive design specialist, he said:
“The idea of inclusive design is that we can take into consideration diverse access needs, and even where they conflict, we can, in many cases, introduce choice. For example, we can introduce a way to modify the user interface of a website or an app so that if I’m visually impaired, I may choose a very high-contrast interface.
But if I’m on the autistic spectrum or I’m dyslexic, that high contrast will actually be a distraction. So instead I might opt for a calmer, low-contrast UI, something like a soft green background and a darker grey foreground text. Digital allows us to offer the user choices to suit individual preferences.”
A few days ago, my colleague Julius Bangert and I visited Liverpool Street and Canada Water TfL underground stations to interview station staff and to get a better sense of the locations themselves. What we learned on that day has changed our approach to mapping and has reinforced our thinking around the first principles of NavSta. Supported by TfL R&D Project Engineer, Lauren Rundle, the team is planning to start mapping both stations shortly.
Connected Places Catapult provides phenomenal links to the railway sector, a critical aspect that will help the NavSta project to be communicated as widely as possible. We are already working with the marketing team to demonstrate NavSta and as such show how to accelerate innovation in the railway sector.
Research is about gaining understanding and that’s exactly why finding the right project partners was key. As you can see, we have a stellar team who are perfectly placed to help the project gain a full understanding of the people, places and technology with and for which we’re designing.
Holistic research approach
Creating a digital placemaking service is all about understanding the users, the context of use and the technology. So, as mentioned above, that’s exactly what we set about to achieve. Running concurrently, teams are investigating a range of areas (see Fig. 2) and the findings from each activity inform the ongoing research as a whole (see Fig. 3).
Before heading into a summary of some of the research activities, I want to emphasise that when creating digital placemaking projects, ideally, thorough research should be undertaken at the beginning of the project; allowing you to understand the site context, the user context, user requirements, technological opportunities (and limitations) etc. so as to design a truly informed and valuable service.
Yes, your placemaking projects should be people and place led in terms of the experiential outcomes, but you need to address people, place and technology at the first stage of your project, the research phase.
NavSta user research
Working with Open Inclusion’s 400-strong UK-wide panel of people with varying access needs was key to the traveller element of our research. Of this panel, Tom drew on around 50 members with a range of neuro diverse conditions – such as cognitive impairment, mental health issues and autism, to take part in a survey.
Here, our aim was to determine the specific audience for whom NavSta would be designed, know about their existing experiences of travelling on public transport and to understand what would give this group more confidence and more autonomy when travelling.
The survey explored people’s:
- attitudes towards travelling on public transport,
- experience of public transport,
- behaviour before travelling
- behaviour during a journey
- ideas for making the whole experience better.
We based part of the survey on the work we had previously undertaken for the UCAN GO wayfinding app, which revealed that a key criterion for any digital wayfinding app should be a function that supports planning a trip.
The survey findings provided a wealth of insights and informed the second phase of the user research – three specially configured focus groups in London.
Tom Pokinko facilitated the sessions, which I attended with two of my colleagues from development and UX. With a project like this, it’s vital that team members and potential users are present to get information first hand, to probe further in specific areas if needed, and to get the opportunity to understand the project from a user’s perspective.
These sessions afforded a deeper dive into the information that we had gleaned from the initial survey, allowing us to understand better passenger needs and to challenge any assumptions we may have held. The focus groups weren’t just about us questioning and the panellists responding, though, there were co-creation activities to understand what a truly great wayfinding tool would look like for this group, e.g. features they would prioritise at all stages of a journey and personalisation of their experience.
A report that pulls together the findings from the focus groups and makes recommendations about the user experience of the NavSta project has been written and is helping to inform the strategy and the shape of the project as a whole.
Once we have developed a testable version of NavSta, the end users will be invited to use it in location and provide important feedback to influence further the design and development of the project.
There’s no denying that passenger research is important. It’s essential that we create a digital tool that is designed with and for the end user.
As mentioned earlier, it’s just as critical that a digital placemaking project researches the site context of use, and in NavSta’s case that is the railway station.
We are approaching this aspect of the research from a variety of angles. One activity concentrates on the day-to-day experience of the TfL station staff and what behaviours and processes they employ when supporting customers with invisible impairments or mobility access needs. A second activity looks at the real-time dynamic nature of stations and is concerned with how NavSta can be designed to operate usefully within this context. A third activity seeks to understand the physicality of the station through the needs of a NavSta traveller, to ensure that their planning and travelling through a station is a more positive experience than at present.
Another piece of work being undertaken concerns the development of a digital mapping system that accurately represents the station so that users can ‘experience’ the station prior to visiting and can be guided through the station when travelling. To do this efficiently Calvium’s developers are working out how to minimise the amount of time that it takes to accurately map a station without reducing the quality of the information contained within the maps.
As part of the mapping system, and to support wayfinding at a station, another activity being investigated is ‘routing’, i.e. the suggested route that NavSta presents to users based on their individual preferences. Key to this activity is the desire to provide a route that responds to the current situation at a station at any given time. For example, ensuring that a suggested route doesn’t direct a passenger to a lift that has broken, rather, it knows to re-route the passenger to a working lift. To achieve this dynamic configuration of the routing, our developers are exploring the appropriate routing algorithms.
Through these concurrent investigations, we can better understand the site-specific context of this project and design a successful solution. It’s easy to produce something that works well in theory for passengers, but unless we understand the station holistically, we can’t create a truly ground-breaking digital tool that works as part of the entire travel experience.
Technical and design investigation
Alongside the passenger and site research, we need to ensure that we have a similarly detailed approach to the data that we draw upon and how that data is translated and presented to travellers through NavSta.
As such the team has explored iOS and Android accessibility guidelines, to ensure a clean and simple user experience for every single user, and is designing the user experience to ensure that personalisation underpins the tool.
As well as producing our own datasets, we are using a range of the datasets provided by the freely available TfL Unified API.
“The unified API presents all the data that is semantically similar for each mode of transport in the same format and consistent structures. This enables you to write once, and access all of the same types of data across all the modes of transport quickly, making multi-mode application development easier.”
To ensure that TfL’s API provides the information that we require, that the information is up-to-date and that the tech forums supporting the API are helpful, our developers have been studying the API. Examples of the type of information available include:
- Current air quality data
- Santander cycle points with available bikes and spaces
- Local taxi contact information
- Journey plans with accessibility preferences
- Line status and disruptions
- Valid routes on lines
- Lists of stations that serve a line
- Line station timetables
- Line arrival predictions
- Car park occupancy
- Road status and disruptions
Within our technical and design investigation, some of our findings from the passenger research also come into play. Tom Pokinko has noticed a huge shift in tech ownership amongst our target users in recent years. A few years ago, this group were most likely to own older model iPhones – whereas now around 80-90% use a far higher spec iOS or Android smartphone on a very regular basis, with greater confidence in and understanding of the tech in their hands.
Counting on collaboration
As I’ve outlined, there is a wealth of activity underway before we begin the design stage. As with any successful digital placemaking project, this holistic research is fundamental to the design, development and deployment of location-specific digital services, such as NavSta.
By bringing together a team of specialists to enable a high quality research phase, Calvium has ensured that NavSta has the greatest chance of becoming an integral part of the travelling public’s wayfinding toolkit.
Find out more about Calvium’s approach to research in our white paper: ‘The Lost Palace: optimising digital innovation for cultural heritage institutions’.