Customer Centred Design: Giving People What They Really Want

Taking a human-centred approach to designing transport infrastructure is important to ensure that we are supporting better access for a diverse group of users. But it’s easier said than done. While other industries have long depended on customer research to innovate and flourish, public transport is more challenging than most: how do we design for the diverse needs, expectations and experiences of Sydneysiders – now and in the future?

Above: Image courtesy of Sydney Metro


Sydney Metro West – an underground metro railway that will link the Parramatta and Sydney CBDs – aims to create a seamless, integrated, reliable and safe public transport solution that will serve and sustain Western Sydney’s growth. We need to know how easily our diverse customer groups can access it, how easily they can find their way around once inside the stations, and how the stations cope with peak congestion.


We must also learn how safe and secure the system feels to different customers at different hours, so all travellers will want to use the new system.


The solution: we research and research, and then … we get digital.


The Research

For Sydney Metro West, WSP first tailored research to reveal people’s current journeys, those they will take in the future, and how they feel about their transport experiences and needs.


We targeted a range of public transport customers and non-customers from diverse demographic categories – people from all cultures, abilities, ages and different needs who work, visit, study, shop and live along the new rail corridor. Guided 2-hour discussions in small groups helped people recall and discuss previous transport experiences, respond to visual prompts and photos, and share their feelings, decisions and behaviours.


Pairs of researchers later shadowed people as they moved through an existing rail station and completed set tasks – noting how customers interacted with the facilities, staff, signage and other people. They also discreetly approached random customers and briefly asked them set questions about their experiences, and about the stations they were in.


Researchers linked customers’ ideal experiences with optimal station locations. We then created a ‘door-to-door-to-door’ journey map outlining customers’ needs and expectations at each stage to ensure we were offering the best advice on new station locations.


What Did We Learn?

“People apply three yardsticks when choosing their travel mode – accessibility, value, and ease, in that order,” says Stuart Allabush, Senior Principal Rail Engineer.


“If people cannot get to a service, or it doesn’t take them where they need to go, it fails the accessibility measure and is of no use to them. Everybody opts for the best value – the fastest, most reliable, affordable and comfortable mode. And, of course, it must be easy to use – offer intuitive and seamless journeys.


“Our aim is to design the Sydney Metro West so that it satisfies all three demands; thereby providing a valuable service that will be used for future generations.”


How We Designed It?

People’s impressions of 2D plans and even 3D models don’t come near their lived experience of how they navigate stations, precincts and interchanges. But, until relatively recently, you couldn’t test users’ responses to something that wasn’t ‘real’ yet.


That’s all changed now. A new world of possibilities emerged once infrastructure designers started combining behavioural science with digital technological innovations.


To test the various Sydney Metro West design solutions developed for customers’ key station challenges, WSP initially created digital station models that people could explore with an Xbox controller, like a video game. In 60-minute sessions, people were able to navigate stations without signage or architectural decoration, describing aloud what they saw and how they felt.


WSP’s next testing model used 3D Virtual Reality (VR) to create a VR experience of proposed station prototypes. With VR headsets on, people moved around the virtual stations, completing specific navigational tasks and telling us what they saw, thought, and felt.


The VR prototype featured animated vertical transport that closely mimicked working operations – escalators moved like normal, and lift doors automatically opened and closed, transporting participants to other levels, and light and sound replicated the various test scenario conditions.


The Outcomes

By empathising with customers as people, the WSP team worked alongside 750 participants to successfully define, ideate, and test solutions to assess more than 160 possible station locations and 20 station designs.


“When designing places, systems and spaces that will be used for future generations, we eliminated as many key customer issues as possible by considering people’s feelings, responses, and choices,” explains Michael Tyrpenou, Principal Social Strategy and Design.


“The design team used the findings to amend station designs, including relocating lifts, stairs and escalators so customers could better orient themselves. We made it easier for people to find their way around and improved station signage. We also took care to ensure people felt safe and secure with well-lit stations and plenty of natural light.”


The Future

The next human-centred station designs could be tested in increasingly complex and live VR station models – ones that simulate loaded stations, congested events, better wayfinding, and more options for lifts, escalators and stairs.


“Word will get around,” concludes Stuart. “Soon, people will line up for design testing so they can use our totally cool VR models.”


Click here to find out more about the Sydney Metro West project.


For more information, contact Michael Tyrpenou, Principal Social Strategy and Design.


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