Navigation in the Kyiv subway: the beginning

A full redesign of the entire navigation system. A logical follow-up on the previous projects such as a new rapid transit map, single-line diagrams, subway system info posters, and a new design of contactless fare cards.

You may’ve noticed quite a few positive changes occurring in the Kyiv subway. Among them, a new rapid transit map, which was rolled out early June, human-style info posters, single-line diagrams above subway car doors, and a new contactless fare card. Yet here comes a much bigger change: since the end of winter, Agents of Change have been working on a complete redesign of Kyiv subway’s entire navigation system. We thought now would be about time to give some heads up on what we call the human-oriented subway navigation.

Why is this important?

You may think the navigation in such a simple system as the Kyiv subway is not of paramount importance. We’ve got only 3 lines and not nearly as many stations as London or Moscow — it may seem people could easily get around even if there were no navigation at all. Indeed, we never really heard of anyone getting lost in the subway and dying of hunger and cold.
Nonetheless, while we aren’t aware of any poor navigation-related fatalities, most of us have, at least once, ended up at a wrong exit from the Khreschatyk station or couldn’t figure out which transfer passageway was open from Khreschatyk to Maidan, and hardly have any idea where we’d end up on the surface when we exit from Osokorky. We all know how often we can’t find navigation elements where and when we need them or how difficult it is to figure out what navigation signs say when a crowd of people is shoving you in all directions.

Trying to figure out which way to go in a narrow transfer passage way
Too many signs at a subway station exit

The Kyiv subway is a relatively simple but a highly overloaded transit system serving millions of passengers every day. All of them encounter daily quite a few inconveniences, both big and small, resulting from the current state of the navigation there. The situation is even more confusing for Kyiv’s visitors. No wonder it affects the overall level of passenger satisfaction, the mood in which people come to work or return home, the attitude of people towards Kyiv’s largest public transit system, even impressions of a trip to Ukraine.

Why do this?

Any design project should have a goal. In our case, we articulated a fairly simple one, “to improve passenger’s subway travel experience in Kyiv.” In a nutshell, we want to increase passengers’ level of satisfaction (yes, just make them a little happier.) It really is all about user experience.

Why not just copy-paste?

On planet Earth, there are many older and more complex subways with quite good navigation systems and sometimes even excellent ones. Quite a few of us have taken the subway in Barcelona, Madrid, London or New York — so, why not just copy-paste a functioning system? The problem is the Kyiv subway is a jungle of various designs, shapes and sizes of stations. It was conceived and constructed at a time when things were built not for the people but for the Party. Therefore, instead of convenient utilitarian stations, we got, often poorly thought out, underground palaces. On top of that, each of them is somewhat different affecting the placement of navigation elements. There are: — pillar, column, and single-vault stations; — central and side platforms; — shallow, deep, and over-the-ground station; — various exit types. In addition, several stations are protected by law as monuments of architecture imposing more restrictions. We also need to create navigation in both Cyrillic and Latin characters because most foreigners can’t read our letters. Finally, the Kyiv subway traditionally uses different names for the interchange stations within a single transfer hub which differs from the “western” practice of using a single“hub” name for all the stations on the connecting lines.

Types of stations on the M3 line

How do you make a navigation system?

Our understanding is that any design is a fairly similar process. Almost all of our team members are professionally involved with the design of interfaces and interactive systems as a whole. We therefore decided to try to conduct this project according to the Human-Centered Design methodology — the most common and most clearly described methodology applied to the interactive system design. HCD process is iterative and contains very specific steps that can be implemented with an array of tools. We came to conclusion that both these steps and the tools should work very well for redesigning a navigation system (whether this is true, we have yet to find out in the future).

Human-Centered Design (ISO 9421–210) http://bit.ly/1J2RRT7

It is important to note that before you produce any design solutions (before you even create design artifacts as prototypes, let alone as finished navigation elements), you have to go through these three equally important stages: — planning; — studying both the usage context and the users; — defining the requirements.

These allow to create reasoned design solutions that satisfy best various user needs and help achieve the set out goals.
Equally important is the prototype testing stage — we need to make sure we took the right decisions compliant with the requirements before they go into production and while the price of an error is not too high.
It is important to keep in mind that design is not a product but a process. It’s an iterative process which allows to continually improve the system by analyzing its effectiveness.

What have we already done?

Designing such large-scale systems is a rather lengthy undertaking. During these few months, we have managed to go through the first 3 stages and have started the 4th (we have already done the fitting of the first prototypes inside a station.)

We have completed the first three stages and are now working on the fourth

Planning

Jointly with the Kyiv subway administration, we decided to take on the transfer hub Khreshchatyk —Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) as a trial project. This allowed us not to disperse our attention over all the stations at once as that would’ve stretched the project for years, significantly increasing the risk of it never coming to life. However, while working out solutions for these two particular stations and transfers between them, we must always keep in mind the limitations we’ll run into at other stations.

We chose the Khreschatyk-Maidan hub for several reasons: — it is the most complex and heavily loaded of all the Kyiv subway transfer hubs; — this is the “façade” of both Kyiv and its subway system; — the hub includes multiple variations of transfer passageways, exits, escalators and other elements.

By finding solutions for this hub we’ll get a plethora of solutions for almost all other stations.

A leap into the unknown. One of the first project meetings.

Studying the usage context

To understand the context in which users find themselves underground it’s necessary to go underground — you can’t create a good design without leaving the office or, in our case, the Chasopys creative space.
So, we split into teams, descended into the subway with our phones and cameras and photo-documented the hub from virtually every possible point and angle. In addition, we observed the behavior of passengers in rush hour, singled out difficulties and communicated with the subway staff in all the key points. This allowed us to obtain important insights we’d never come up with if we just sat indoors.

A chart indicating points singled out by our team… but only Rey understands it.

Then we specified all the possible usage scenarios at this transfer hub: there turned out to be 30 of them. We explored each scenario using a specially created chart with a coordinates system and defined all the decision making points (DMP) — places where it’s critical for a passenger to get some information in order to answer the question “What’s next?” This is routine work but it took a lot of time and prompted heated discussions within our team. Without it, any of our future decisions would’ve been unfounded.

A list of scenarios for further processing
Heated debates over how to fixate DMP’s
Subway navigation — it’s just like Battleship but more fun
Paper and markers — our favorite way of doing it

Each DMP describes a pair of points — the very point of the decision-making and the previous one. This allowed us to determine the direction of a passenger’s gaze. Later on, when we move away from the scenarios and work only with the needs (more details below), this will let us determine which plane a particular piece of information should appear on as, formally, each point has 4 sides. By applying the scenarios for each such a pair of points we identified the user needs — the questions that need to be answered right there, right away.

An example of breaking up one scenario into the needs

Defining requirements

Once we go through all the scenarios, we need to combine all the pairs of the identical points. Now we know at what point what information is needed, taking into account all possible scenarios. Put simply, it is a set of navigation requirements for the key points of the Khreshchatyk — Maidan subway hub. By respecting these requirements when formulating design solutions we will satisfy every passenger whichever direction they might be going to.
Nonetheless, there are “abnormal” and extraordinary scenarios as well as people with specific needs. We’ll get to them once we’ve covered the basics.
Also, in addition to the requirements described above, various points set out various technical specifications: how fast a piece of info should be read and from what distance? Should it be static or variable? And many others.

Finding design solutions

And finally, the most interesting part we all call “design.” We need to find a solution that best responds to the user needs at each point. It is a long and exciting process of many a brainstorm, debate, discussion, trial and error, fitting, analysis of our own work, and of what’s been done in the world before us (by the way, we created several thematic boards on Pinterest.) During the process of discussions and searches we have to form a set of common principles and patterns — a design code which all the navigation elements in the subway will follow. This will result in consistency of the navigation system and give passengers a sense of continuity and ongoing support. Some of the solutions we have already worked out and have even tried out some of the prototypes in the subway. In any case, this is just the beginning and in the beginning, as you know, everything is difficult. But we shall succeed.

Diversified thinking in action
A secret solution we’ll tell you about in one of our future articles
First-time sign fitting

We will do our best to make the navigation development process as open as possible and provide information on the decisions we make.
We would like to thank the creative space Chasopys for offering us a comfortable place to work, and for the delicious coffee and toasts with jam.