How design can counteract the stress of travel

Blueprint Magazine

Of course it’s natural to become stressed if we don’t know where we are. To design environments that alleviate this feeling of uncertainty is really about understanding what reassurance we can give people throughout the whole of their experience.

In the past, the train station was simple — now it’s far more complex. It is multimodal with requirements for trains, trams, taxis and bikes. It is not just a transport interchange but offers much more. King’s Cross and St Pancras stations are good examples of this: they have re-energised the local area and are now destinations in their own right, not only for international travel, but also for those seeking retail, leisure and entertainment.

Station users can now be commuters, tourists, shoppers and/or have reduced mobility, and so their requirements vary greatly. It's important to understand what each of these users actually needs in order to improve their user experience.

The major stress points of rail travel are lack of access to information, and service disruption. These come up time and time again, but there are opportunities to turn these stress points into moments of delight. This is what we call emotional mapping and we use this to identify where we can exceed expectations.

As part of our research, we look at the ‘end-to-end’ journey, which can be broken down into remote planning, the approach, the entrance, the ticket hall, circulation area and platform. If you understand what the user needs are along these points in the journey, then you can understand how to provide the right information at the right time.

There’s a huge opportunity to give people better access to information in the public realm through signage. Signage and real-time information doesn’t have to be in the station. It can be outside, like at Euston. Having signage outside the station means that the user can sit and have a coffee rather than stand in front of the departure board looking up for half an hour, which adds congestion to the concourse area. If an operator has this relationship with its customers, then they also have the opportunity to interact with them and provide an enhanced service.

Station environments have to be responsive now, and active signage can be used to report disruptions and the capacity of the station at different times of the day, leading to more efficient stations. At London Bridge, where we’ve been working, there’s digital signage above the escalators that indicates whether the escalators are going up or down, dependent on demand.

There’s also a real issue with homelessness in stations. As part of our work with HS2, we held a workshop to look at the user needs of a homeless person. If these stations are going to be used by everyone, we wanted to discuss an approach to meeting the needs of the homeless user too.

The homeless might use a train station because it is a safe and warm environment, maybe providing the opportunity to get food. During the workshop we looked at the waste policies of the operators and thought that the most appropriate response might be for them to instigate a relationship with a local hostel and donate food that would usually have gone to waste.

This is one example of understanding an issue and taking control of it rather than ignoring it in the design process. It’s about demonstrating social awareness and wellbeing for everyone who uses the station and the local environment. It was a really useful outcome of the workshop, especially in an industry which often focuses on the more obvious user.

This opened our eyes as to how far we could go with a user-centric approach to station design — and the ways in which the train station of the future may operate.