Information in mobility and transportation systems (3/3): Designing systems for human beings

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.

Previous article: Information in mobility and transportation systems (2/3): languages and dialects

How to communicate change?

When we travel, we have a starting point and a final destination, and in between our position changes through space and time. We draw a route and estimate the length of our journey. The key challenge facing information designers is staging these changes, so that they are understood and pertinent for the person making a decision in a given context.

In the early 1930’s, when road signs became a matter of necessity in the United States, a single organizing body set up common rules to be followed in all States. These same principles ended up being adopted fairly consistently throughout the world, and will undoubtedly remain as they are today — that is, until autonomous vehicles render information for humans unnecessary.

Let’s imagine, on the other hand, a world in which this initial convergence process had not taken place, and in which every State, region, and county had its own road signage. One can easily imagine the problems this could create on a trip from Paris to Milan for instance. This is precisely what is happening in the transportation sector with a large number of mobility information systems. However we are unlikely to attain an objective of global standardization today. Indeed, we probably need to accept that we will never again truly have a homogenous macro-system, or some sort of universal lingua franca in the realm of transportation. This ambition may have made sense when road construction was booming — and at a time when the number of decision makers was limited and governing bodies were centralized — but it clearly is no longer relevant. The challenge that mobility-related information is facing today is whether to adapt information to each individual and to each context, or produce homogenous information that everyone is able to understand everywhere.

In the projects we undertake at attoma, we advise our clients on what is the best way to find a happy medium between these two extremes: how can we take into account the nature of the system, local contexts, technology, usages, economic models, regulatory frameworks … not to mention opposing strategies by different stakeholders and government restrictions, which are sometimes unreasonable but often determine the outcome.

By way of example, we have designed a number of information systems for buses, trams, metros, and regional trains. You would think that the information in question would always remain the same: we need to know what the next stop is, what are the connecting lines, what time it is, if there are disruptions on the line, etc. And yet, it is not always the same. For instance, we do not need the same granularity or breadth of field in the information available to us, if we are taking a suburban bus line with its own designated lane, as opposed to an urban line where buses make frequent stops. The story that we tell with this information will not be exactly the same.

We became aware of this crucial point while implementing projects in Paris, Brussels, Lille, Dijon, and Rennes. Moreover, when we were studying the concept of “disruptions” on a line, we quickly became aware that the term had very different meanings if this happened on a metro line in a very dense network, as opposed to a point near the end of a branch of the infamous RER C line. Incidentally, I’d like to clarify that I have nothing against the RER C, but I have never understood for what absurd reason it was decided to continue to treat it as a single line, when its progressive branching has resulted in creating a sub-network reaching multiple destinations, creating an unintelligible maze.

Map of the RER C, SNCF. Is this a “line” ?

Simplicity: the revolutionary concept of a world designed for human beings

That being said, how do we introduce a modicum of simplicity and stability into these information systems? How can we ensure — beyond the dialectal variations specific to each context — the interoperability and accessibility of information? Some individuals, being new polyglots, can figure things out for themselves when faced with various information systems. But other less experienced — or simply less interested — users may simply not be able to access all segments of an offer in the transportation sector. It is becoming richer and richer in information, and also more fragmented. As paradoxical and counter-intuitive as it may sound, it appears that a wealth of options in the transportation sector has also become a factor of exclusion.

Our answer to this predicament may seem simplistic: rather than hope for the miracle of a bright tomorrow where the magic of artificial intelligence embedded in our smartphones will eliminate all the obstacles and disparities in the world, let’s just stop designing such lousy systems.

For the real problem with information design and user-centered interaction is that it is simply not possible to render these systems usable if they are not designed from the outset with the intention of taking into account the user. While some would accuse us of being holier-than-thou (“If it were that easy, we would have done it by now!”), we just hope that someday all this will become possible. But what can we do having inherited such a complex system, that has been built with successive layers that are now inextricably bound together?

A simple approach does exist, and has been proven effective. We call it Px3: Prioritize, Prioritize, and Prioritize Again. If users had to choose one key claim or functionality, what would it be? If they could choose only two of these? Three? Backed up by prototypes and tests, this method is foolproof, provided that the designer takes the risk of committing to a certain kind of radicalism. Because at some point, when faced with the cognitive non-viability of these complex systems that were not designed for humans, we have to make a choice! Is it easy? Let’s put it this way: I challenge you to find the person who would be willing — and would have the authority — to re-name the RER C line and make it a rational object that finally makes sense.

Map of the Hibiya line (Tokyo Metro) posted in the Hibiya station, Tokyo. Complex, but usable. Photo © Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, 2016

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