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User centric design heralds new era for rail travel

For decades, one field that has distinctly lagged behind in user centric design is transport infrastructure.

The design and how people interact with facilities has largely been deemed less important than projects finishing on time and within budget. This is in stark contrast to the tech and consumer industries where user centric design is considered essential to winning over shoppers’ hearts and minds.

The signal is now shifting with $6 billion investment announced for rail projects across Australia, currently under procurement or commencing work. More Australians are moving regionally, upholding their high standards of urban rail and expecting quality service for the high price of a regional rail ticket. There is no better time than now to deliver a superior rail passenger experience and user centric methodology enables us to deliver precisely that.

At Aurecon, we recently completed research for Victoria’s first user centric design rail project that highlighted pain points facing passengers. This type of robust, unique research is destined to be implemented for rail projects across the country as Australia’s infrastructure industry embraces the unique benefits of user centric design.

The time is ripe for rail

The last few years have seen significant investments allocated to Australia’s rail infrastructure, with billion dollar projects such as Inland Rail and  a $10billion National Rail Programme to fund new urban rail projects in Australia’s major cities. Rail has long been an underfunded area of infrastructure, and with Australia’s population forecast to double by 2070 reaching almost 45 million people, the high-speed connection and environmental benefits of rail are coming to fruition with rapid pace.

In Victoria, $30million of federal funding has been allocated towards development of a business case for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link and $500million allocated to upgrade regional rail networks. One rail project currently underway is the Victorian Government’s duplication of the Geelong to Waurn Ponds rail line. The project is critical to accommodate western Victoria’s rapid population growth and alleviate the single rail line’s large bottleneck of commuters. Duplication of a project provides the optimal opportunity for user centric design, enabling us to capture real-time data and learn from current users. One rail line has already been created, now how can we make it better?

People’s expectations are evolving

More Australians are moving regionally in search of more affordable housing and a better lifestyle, with country Victoria growing at a greater rate than any of Australia’s other regional areas. Melbournians who move are taking their expectations of urban transport with them, particularly given the high price of their annual rail pass. They expect to turn up a station and jump on a train without having to wait an hour for the next. They desire well-lit pathways, instant communication on train times, and shelter against the elements. As we are so used to products and technology that is instinctive to use, people now want simple wayfinding so they can easily navigate their way to and from the station and know which train to catch. This is becoming increasingly imperative, particularly at large stations for ageing residents, tourists and people with a disability.

It’s also recognised that infrastructure impacts and accommodates a range of lifestyle needs beyond travel. Commuters expect that their needs, convenience and lifestyle factors are considered for transport routes. As travellers today face increasingly time poor schedules, they want to use their spare time on route to pick up groceries, leading to the increase of mini markets.

Why user centric design?

Put simply, user-centered design is the art of designing tools and technology which fit around the way humans think and behave. ‘Don’t make people think’ is one mantra, demonstrating the end goal is for people to enjoy an intuitive experience.

The unique part of our research was that it was captured early and part of the engineering design process. All too often, users are surveyed after a design has been created, and ‘user-centric’ becomes a ‘bolt-on’, rather than being integrated from the beginning. We were also able to understand articulated as well as unarticulated customer needs and pain points. This enabled us to adopt an empathic approach to understand, define, and prioritise based on the actual users’ preferences.

Our research sought to uncover the whole user travel experience, taking a passenger’s experience on the existing line to inform design of the duplicate line.

A team consisting of designers, scientists, town planners, structural engineers, health and safety personnel and transport engineers travelled via train to regional platforms and conducted observations and interviews with 30 people, speaking to both brand new, familiar and unfamiliar users. Catching the train line ourselves provided a fresh, hands-on perspective on the experience. Morning, weekend and public holidays users were interviewed, securing 100+ hours of observations, interviewing people on platforms and trains to discover their pain points. We also looked beyond the train journey, investigating how people travelled to and from the station (be it car/bike/walk) for a holistic, robust view and data capture.

What’s in a train journey?

A rail line is a life raft to people who live regionally and so much more than a means of getting from A to B. We uncovered many insights on areas that may not spring to mind when people first think of a train. For example:

What people first think of a train

We distilled this data down into a number of central themes including connectivity, confidence, comfort, choice, convenience and safety, provided to clients to support in determining design priorities. For example:

Design priorities for rail travel

Collaboration for change

As rail projects across the country continue to increase, it’s more essential than ever that user centric design is undertaken at the very beginning to inform and create better infrastructure. The practice is now even becoming embedded in the bid process, where changes are recommended based on research conducted with end user preferences highlighting proposed design flaws.

Collaboration across industry is critical for user centric design to become embedded in transport infrastructure. Considering how to integrate it early in the planning process will be essential for success.

User centric design provides a significantly higher valuable outcome and an optimal process for community engagement as you can genuinely reassure stakeholders of the user benefits they will experience. The insights enable us to make more informed decisions, create better outcomes and invest in design where it will offer true value – and hopefully will become mandated for all future infrastructure projects.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

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