Underground, overwhelmed – designing the station of the future

By Jai Patel, Analyst

April 8, 2016   

In-station-wayfindingWayfinding is a fundamental activity carried out every day by all of us. Knowing where you are in a physical space, where your desired destination is and how to get there from your current location is essential.

Research has consistently shown that wayfinding in London is stressful and confusing, and that 1 in 10 people lose their way when trying to navigate around London’s streets [1].

On one hand, our environment and the transport network of London have ‘reached a level of complexity that is beyond human processing capability to navigate around.[2]’. In addition to this, the transport network is changing and growing constantly.

On the other hand, digital tools, new technologies, and the utilisation of physical space are some of the available approaches to aid wayfinding.

How many times have you emerged from a carriage onto the platform pandemonium, looking left and right in near bewilderment in search of the right station exit? The reality is that wayfinding in stations is frustrating and maddening to say the least.

It’s not a coincidence that navigation apps account for a significant number of downloads on various app stores. Mobile apps, digital maps and audio directions try to help people deal with the disconcerting intricacy of physical space.

An interesting initiative was born from an accessibility point of view, when design consultancy Ustwo partnered with RSLB to look at how technology can aid those that are visually impaired in train stations. Their solution was using beacons which communicate with an app to provide directional prompts. This is an interesting stepping stone into utilising new technologies that support offline features.

Even though mobile apps help reduce the feeling of confusion and that of being lost, we pose the question: What do we do when we are offline?

Although there continues to be a significant amount of work being done in signage design and touchscreen interfaces to aid wayfinding, the actual physical spaces are not yet being fully utilised.

We can certainly build on how indoor spaces can be used to provide intelligent forms of wayfinding, e.g. how Whybrow wayfinding redesigned the accident and emergency departments in hospitals in Southampton. They used signage and leaflets to better communicate waiting times and events taking place in A&E departments. Over time, this hugely contributed to reducing aggression and violence by 50 percent.

Equivalent to the above is Legible London, a city-wide wayfinding system in the capital. Initially implemented in just one borough, Legible London has expanded throughout the others, with 30 of the 33 local authorities now employing its signs. Today, Legible London stands for improved pedestrian wayfinding and integrated journey experiences.

All of the above examples of tackling wayfinding issues prove invaluable to designing the station of the future. But where do we start?

As true agents of change, WAE’s approach is to start small and think big. By starting in one station and observing a variety of people’s experiences we can design a range of solutions to tackle these problems that can be part of a system, scaled to work for the whole network of stations.

Lighting, signage, apps and physical space utilisation may all come to play at WAE’s Bootcamp ‘CX in a Day’ when participants tackle this design brief using customer-first thinking.