The art of getting lost

On sketching, prototyping and finding your way when riding bicycles

I love cycling. The seamless flow of motion and the freedom from traffic, congestion and parking lots. I ride my bike to work, to client meetings, and in general for exploring my surroundings. It’s simply how I get around. But I do get lost. A lot. And then the flow is replaced with an endless series of stopping, fishing out phones and tapping on screens. Not the experience I want when riding in traffic or trails.

There are a lot of products out there, some are available for purchase but most often on Kickstarter and the like. Some notable examples are Cobi, Hammerhead and Haize.

Cobi (left) Hammerhead (center) and Haize (right)

Cobi makes you attach your phone to integrated (and huge) lights, Hammerhead gives you turn-by-turn via a hammerhead looking thing attached to the handlebars and Haize offers a compass-like gadget that always points to your destination.

In addition to being a bike enthusiast (some say nerd) I’m also a designer. I believe less is more. Elegance is the absence of the unnecessary and good interfaces shouldn’t be in your face. The products out there all fall short of my expectations in one way or another. I want something that blends in and guides me without telling me what to do, and so I started looking for a abetter solution.

Putting the team together. I recruited a UX designer (Josefin; do read her thoughts on why designers should build robots), Communication designer (Nicklas) and Technical prototyper and developer (Edvald) to the cause. Together we sketched, prototyped, iterated and user tested our assumptions. Perhaps our learnings and methods can inspire someone to create a better experience.

Sketching & Prototyping. We imagined something integrated into the handlebars, replacing the need for bike lights. One light on each side, left and right. Lights pulsate to indicate a cource correction, when they’re both steady you’re right on target, almost like a dowsing rod.

Scenario sketches, directions passing from mobile phone to the lights at the edge of the handlebars.

Sketching is way of thinking, and it’s also the quickest way of communicating ideas to others in a way that invites feedback. A range of issues immediately surfaced. Won’t the lights break if placed all the way at the end? Will your arms and hands cover them up? How about different styled of handle bars, like drop bars or bull horns?

We made quick modifications based on feedback, such as moving the lights to the inside of the grips so to keep them protected, visible and suitable for for all styles of handle bars (straight, drop bars, bull horns, etc).

What if guidance works like dowsing rod, turn handle bars until you get two green ligths

Sketches only gets you so far, after a certain point the work becomes too speculative. Prototyping is a design activity in it’s own right and indeed a second direction quickly emerged during the this phase. What if a more granular and immediate indication is needed? How about a circle of lights indicating the precise direction, like a magical compass always pointing at your destination (similar but more visible than the Haize example)?

Taking the prototypes for a test run

Into the wild. Bikes where equipped with the two different prototypes. Test groups where recruited from friends and family and then set free close to freeways, trails, lakes and hills with little or no guidance.

Some not so bicycle friendly way of getting there.

Time to step back and observe what kind of trouble our tester would get into. Here is what we learned so far.

Insights gathered while trying out the protype in the wild

Turn-by-turn is overrated. Cycling is all about finding and following your own path. Even if it’ll take a bit longer. The path you take, as long as it gets your there, is the right one. This is great news from a design perspective. Recommending the optimal bike route is difficult, it may well go through a parks or parking lots (much to the dismay of motorists and pedestrians).

As-the-crow-flies style of directions are great. Getting the assurance of knowing that you’re generally heading in the right direction is really appreciated, it encourages exploration and a greater “flow”. No more stopping and reaching for your phone for assurance.

This is how I actually ride my bike, free and fun. I don’t miss the GPS one bit — Eric (tester).

More-to-the left / more-to-the-right is not enough. People riding with the dowsing rod prototype did miss the more immediate and precise guidance offered by the magic compass. To compensate for the lack of granularity people ended up zig-zagging to see when the lights switch and thereby getting a more specific direction. An workable strategy perhaps but not great from a safety point of view.

The circular magic compass style is better suited for immediately and accurate directions

Keeping it dead simple. The importance of this cannot be overstated. When cycling in traffic there is no time for ambiguous or unnecessary information, only show what’s needed and make sure it’s easily visible in glaring sunlight and pouring rain.

A quick glance is enough, it’s like glancing at the the rear view mirror — Jonas (tester).

Don’t nag. Avoid any blinking, vibrations, or red lights if at all possible. People don’t want to be nagged into turning and made to feel that they are going about it the wrong way.

Riding in the right direction with the downing rod style prototype

Proximity is nice. Knowing that you’re making some progress towards your destination is well received as long as it doesn’t complicate the experience. A rough indication will do, avoid numbers or granular UI states.

Always on and no lag. When people are lost they stop to get their bearings. During the tests they quickly started to rely on the guiding lights and expected them to work whether in motion or not. Getting off the bike and pulling out your phone is failure.

Our compass short circuited half way through so we had to rely on gps-position and motion to show direction.

Nobody wants another gadget. Not only did our users reject turn-by-turn, they really struggled to identify any missing features, nor could we observe the need for any. Forget fancy screens, speedometers, find-my-bike features or anything else you or your over zealous collegues come up with.

What’s next

It’s not clear. We’d like to refine the prototype, making it smaller and building it into the handlebar. Then perhaps it’s time to hit the forest trails to find out how it holds up with the mountain bike crowd. Or perhaps it’s time to just go ahead and build it. Your thoughts are welcome.

Credits:

Hello, my name is Petter Karlsson and I’m head of design at Apegroup, a design, technology & communication agency from Sweden. We help organisations build great digital products with engaging content. Want to know more about how we work? Learn more at our website.

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