Information in mobility and transportation systems (1/3): How to empower users in the face of urban chaos
Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, Senior Design Strategist Attoma
As attoma’s CEO, I will be speaking at the world’s leading trade fair for transport technology — InnoTrans — on September the 21st in Berlin. For this occasion, I have published a series of three articles dedicated to the importance of rethinking information in the field of transportation for mobility systems. Attoma works with multiple clients across different sectors and a key field of our expertise lies in the mobility sector.
Mobility-related Information: a journey in itself!
Information in a mobility and transport system no longer comes down to producing a user manual. It is a form of travel in itself, a journey through information systems that allow travelers to plan ahead, compare routes, and make choices before any travel has actually begun.
This new paradigm — which to a certain extent contradicts traditional ways of thinking — takes into consideration the real needs and abilities of these new information travelers/surfers in an extraordinarily complex environment. Although the current fragmentation of information available to the user responds to new needs and lifestyle changes, it also creates an explosion of resources with a plethora of information glossaries and vocabularies.
Information pertaining to urban mobility has become inherently redundant and confusing. Such incoherence is a direct reflection of the lack of continuity between different mobility systems. Let’s consider for instance a bus lane that is open to cyclists and that from a certain point forbids cyclists to continue in that same lane: the user becomes sidetracked and mentally confused in the face of ambiguous signage, and what is more he/she can be put at considerable risk. This basically means that if you want to ride your bike in a city, it’s up to you to develop your own cognitive system and game plan. And this is exactly what happens: faced with information overload, individuals learn to develop their own strategies by piecing together information to tailor it to their own individual needs.
This is both the result of natural cognitive processes, and our need to be empowered in the face of digital culture.
A radical assumption
It goes without saying that we will never resolve the complexity of such situations by imposing a single, homogenous information architecture. However, we must develop some kind of logical interoperability between individualized information systems and collective information systems. Users must be given the means to understand and become empowered in the face of urban chaos. When devising information design strategies, this new paradigm therefore requires that we take into account users’ concerns, needs, and abilities from the outset.
This would appear to make sense. Yet, as service designers, we have witnessed how hard it is for stakeholders (authorities, operators and service providers, manufacturers, industry professionals, start-ups, etc) to attempt to understand the obstacles that users encounter when they plan their travel.
How can we shift our perspective and truly demonstrate the need for a user-centered approach? At attoma, we work from the — albeit radical — assumption that the complexity of the situation has reached a tipping point. Our basic cognitive skills are no longer up to resolving such complex systems. This leads us to the question: how are we meant to live in a world where our perception of simplicity is a thing of the past, that codes are simply no longer coherent, and that the continuity of experience is just a myth?
Our experience in conducting user studies for clients has taught us that the complexity of mobility goes beyond our ability to assimilate and process information.
Thus, through a paradoxically drastic set up, it becomes easier for us to put the traveler back at the center of the information ecosystem. For example, when we begin considering transport schedules, we must no longer focus on a bus line’s traditional grid-like timetable, but rather on what the day looks like for the traveler him/herself. Consequently, we must no longer refer to scheduled stops, but rather to actual bus frequencies and passenger waiting times.
In order to go a step further and create information services that recognize the system’s complexity, it would be best to stop trying to reach a perfect ideal: one of universal integration and coordination of information, which would provide the average user with the means to easily navigate the complex maze of such disparate modes of transport. Beyond the fact that this ideal is simply not possible, our observations of usages throughout our projects have not taught us that is neither pertinent.
Believing that Google will lead us towards a perfectly integrated and standardized world is an oversimplification that does not accurately reflect the reality of user experiences. Users do not wish to surrender their right to take ownership of such systems. They want to modify them to meet their actual needs — no matter how marginal — and wish to reclaim their autonomy.