Digital Placemaking

NavSta wayfinding app: an overview

Date Published:

Phone in a hand, showing a screen of text

In the UK there are 13.9 million disabled people, with both visible (e.g. those that impact physical movement) and less visible impairments, such as autism, learning difficulties and dementia. While there are increasing services available for those with physical disabilities, those who have invisible impairments are recognised as being underserved, for instance when travelling. 

The ability to use public transport enables people to access education and employment, as well as to socialise and fully participate in cultural activities. However, without assistance, a significant proportion of people with less visible impairments can find it difficult to get from point A to point B independently and with confidence.

According to the Mental Health Action Group:

“If we cannot travel around our communities we cannot be a part of them. We cannot work or seek work, study, visit friends and family, be a part of faith communities, engage in sport, culture and leisure pursuits. Neither can we attend to the basics of everyday life like shopping for food, attending medical appointments, and gain other support we need.”

Around the world, laws like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act in the UK all include provisions for individuals with hidden impairments.

When it comes to the railways there are a number of relatively recent policies and activities that are intended to improve the passenger experience, including Network Rail’s Inclusive Design Strategy 2014-2018 that focuses on designing spaces and places with people put at the heart of this process. Encouragingly, when writing about Network Rail’s approach to innovation the report states ‘The use of smartphone applications and iBeacon technology is being explored across the rail industry. An inclusive approach to design often provides new insights into the way we interact with the environment and creates new opportunities to apply creative and problem-solving skills.’

Regrettably, despite the above, the everyday experience of many people with less visible impairments continues to be ‘suboptimal’. People report all sorts of obstacles and uncertainty when travelling that leads to stress and heightened anxiety, often resulting in two choices: being forced to use a public transport system where they feel unsafe or not using public transport at all.

Why digital assistance is needed

“The major reasons for relatively low levels of public transport use by people with mental impairments are anxiety and lack of confidence,” Roger Mackett from Centre for Transport Studies UCL said. “[This is] caused by a number of factors including the behaviour and attitudes of staff and other travellers, difficulty navigating along the street and through stations, the lack of accessible information at the appropriate time and concerns about becoming lost and possible disruption to the journey,”

Indeed, the stories shared by our neurodiverse participants in the first NavSta concept design workshop supported Mackett’s claim. Below are just three quotes we gathered as they described their lived and felt experiences of travelling through railway stations:

“I hate Kings Cross because it’s just too manic and I was walking around crying - How do I get out?”

User research participant

“If a train is late and there are people pushing and shoving, it’s really frightening. I’m a grown man and I shouldn’t be frightened.”

User research participant

“I’ll be brave and stand at the end of the platform although then I can’t see the signs.”

User research participant

It simply shouldn’t be the case that in 2019 hundreds of thousands of people with invisible disabilities are still struggling when travelling on UK railways – resulting in many avoiding public transport altogether. This is why, in March 2019, the NavSta digital wayfinding project was started – to help these people with less visible impairments navigate complex railway stations with reduced anxiety and with increased confidence.

Three people write on sticky notes on a board, next to a stenograph display
User research participants add ideas to a wall, considering how to improve their experiences of travelling through stations.

NavSta: objectives and key features

NavSta (Navigating Stations) is a mobile wayfinding system underpinned by rigorous research and inclusive design. It will help users with invisible impairments to:

The NavSta Passenger App aims to reduce the causes of anxiety when travelling through railway stations. By producing a mobile wayfinding app that people can download onto their smartphones, we want to enable many of those who currently choose not to use railway stations to do so, and improve the experience of those who do travel but whose journeys are made more difficult due to high levels of anxiety. 

Personalisation is a key function. The NavSta Passenger App will integrate with the personalisation settings of an individual’s smartphone. Users can also personalise the app itself (e.g. show map routes that allow for lifts and not stairs) as they use it.

People in orange hi-vis jackets walk through a train station, seen from a level above, with their backs to the camera
User testing at Canada Water. Researchers shadow a participant in the train station, observing their behaviour.

Ultimately, we want all complex railway stations to offer the NavSta Passenger App, thus improving the passenger experience and their quality of life.

Partners for the future of railway travel

This project won funding from the Innovate UK Award and Challenge: ‘Demonstrating Tomorrow’s Stations.’

To help us make NavSta real, we partnered with organisations that follow the same inclusive philosophy—Transport for London (TfL), Open Inclusion, and Connected Places Catapult. By working closely and in partnership we are able to leverage the expertise of each partner to ensure the NavSta Passenger App is intuitive and genuinely works for the end user. I’ve written about the work that the partners have done in an earlier article explaining the early research stage of NavSta, which can be read here.

Two people stand smiling in front of a screen with a Future Cities logo on it.
Jo Morrison (Calvium) and Tom Pokinko (Open Inclusion) talk about inclusion and digital placemaking at the Future Cities Catapult.

NavSta: value, benefits and principles

NavSta aims to improve the experience not only for the passenger but also for those involved in station management as well as train operating companies.

For passengers, NavSta will help those with invisible impairments travel independently through train stations. Its key features help to reduce passenger anxiety and raise passenger confidence, enabling independent travel. Through inclusive design and technological innovation, NavSta will then be an integral part of the travelling public’s wayfinding toolkit.

“Most definitely it helps alleviate my anxiety, it contextualises everything and gives you the exact information - it's very holistic.”

User, final user testing at Canada Water Station

For station managers and train operating companies, NavSta will become an accessible digital wayfinding app, enabling independent travel through stations. This will remove barriers to travel, deliver more inclusive and accessible journeys and increase passenger satisfaction.

Working with existing infrastructure, NavSta is an indoor wayfinding solution that does not rely on uniform connectivity at a station – crucially, it has been designed to work offline. It is a whole mapping system that can stand alone or integrate data from multiple sources.

Diagram of the NavSta data-inputs. Some components of the system were found not to be feasible – shown here in grey.

NavSta will help embed inclusive travel into the passenger experience, as well as support train operators to achieve accessibility obligations and Inclusive Transport Strategy goals.

Benefits

The NavSta project will:

“If there's an exhibition I want to go to, this app will help me, every step of the way.”

User A, final user testing at Canada Water Station

“It might encourage me to go out more, knowing that there's a station that I don't have to struggle to get in and out of”

User B, final user testing at Canada Water Station

The NavSta App provides the opportunity to improve the accessibility of hundreds of stations across the country.

People in a train station. Three people in orange hi-vis jackets are walking behind a person holding a phone.
One session from the final user testing day, at Canada Water, London.

Guiding Principles

At Calvium, we closely followed five core principles as we designed, built and tested the NavSta app. Each of these active guiding principles were born from our first user research workshop and underpin the project:

  1. Trust — Trusting that the information in the system is reliable and will not mislead the user
  2. Safety — A system that allows the safe passage of the user through physical and digital interaction
  3. Clarity — The information in the system is displayed in a clear and understandable format
  4. Personalisation — The user can tailor the services of the application to suit their individual needs
  5. Usefulness and Relevance — The information presented in the system supports the user to complete their tasks effectively

Project Progress

So far, as mentioned above, in just eight months we have built a complete digital mapping system that includes and supports the NavSta Passenger App. User insights gained at all stages of the project have guided us through concept, design and development stages of the project – our progress is documented in the following articles:

As this project moves forward, we will continue to put inclusive design and collaboration at its core.

“It fills a niche as other apps don't do this in stations”

“I think it's easier to use than Google or TfL Route Planner”

User C, final user testing at Canada Water Station

Person with white hair stands in a lift, holding a phone in their hands.
A participant from the final user testing uses a lift at Canada Water, London.

If you want to follow NavSta’s journey and be one of the first to know when it’s available to the public, sign up for our newsletter or follow Calvium’s blog.

 


This project is funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK