FROM a service designer perspective, we often notice objects, apps, interfaces and services which are conceived to meet the needs of an imaginary user but are far from being representative of the actual users' needs.

Unfortunately there is often a gap between the idea of the user in some designers' minds and the actual user's genuine situation, capacities, and motivations. And, as we witness complex societal change such as population ageing and the growing complexity of digital technologies used to enhance transport, there is evidence that this gap is widening.

AttomaThis alarming situation leads to numerous examples of bad design in everyday transport situations which demonstrate this phenomenon: interactive terminals with a variety of functions but which are used predominately to check timetables; smartphone apps which have been downloaded yet are rarely used; revolving doors which close on slow-moving passengers; and eyetracking-based interfaces on displays which do not work because a significant number of people are wearing sunglasses.

With this in mind, our job is to assist transport authorities, operators and manufacturers to design products and services that meet their users' needs. To achieve this, we follow a reliable methodological framework to study real-life users to collect deep and accurate knowledge about their actual behaviour, usage patterns and situations in the field. As a result, we are able to resolve the gap between assumptions and reality, and we make sure that the products and services we design are useful, simple, usable, and desirable. We have conducted various projects in the mobility sector for clients including Paris Transport Authority (RATP), French National Railways (SNCF), Parkeon, Vix, Société du Grand Paris (SGP), Aéroports de Paris, Keolis, Transdev, Thales, and Orange.

It is imperative that in a climate of inaccurate beliefs about users, that one focuses on actual behaviour and real life usages. To achieve this, it is imperative to go beyond stereotypes and inaccurate beliefs about the use of digital services and look into users' daily lives to understand their actual behaviour, motivation, habits and abilities.


A few years ago, innovations such as Microsoft Kinect promised us new ways to interact with digital devices. These new and fascinating gestural interfaces offer the possibility to use our bodies, heads and even eyes to interact rather than physically touching a tangible surface. Multitouch screens, such as those used for tablets, enable us to use one or several fingers to zoom, swipe, slide and rotate. Although these innovative technologies continue to mesmerise us, we must question their usefulness when applied on a large wall screen within the context of a large station. Are these technologies really useful in intricate and busy circumstances experienced at an airport or railway station?

For example, using an interactive machine that requires two hands to zoom on a map is an issue for users travelling with children or carrying luggage, as they have only one hand available. Moreover, the use of gestures for interaction may discourage some shy people from using the device, with studies indicating that some gestures may be seen as inappropriate in a public space.

By observing users interacting with actual devices - or prototypes - in field situations we can determine the most appropriate mode of interaction and avoid the pitfalls of attractive but inappropriate technologies and designs. Of course, these technologies are not meant to fail systematically, but we should be realistic when choosing them, taking into account what users will or will not do in a given situation.

Another key example is mobile apps. There are many false beliefs regarding their capabilities to offer hyper-customisation depending on personal user data and location, the ability to access any piece of information at any time, and ease of interaction with the service.

Again, there is no ready-made answer to this situation because every app must be considered in its own context. For instance, we have studied traveller's behaviour while using an application to facilitate transfers at railway stations. While all the features that this digital travel companion app offered were perceived by users as pertinent while they were sitting on the train, some features ultimately proved unusable as they walked through the station.

By organising just a dozen ethnographic observations and interviews in the field, we observed that travellers always preferred to follow a crowd or refer to existing signs to identify the platform for their next train rather than using their smartphone to perform this task. Some were simply unable to access their phone because it was stowed away in their luggage, and others felt uncomfortable staring at the screen while walking in a crowded space, or they couldn't hold the device because their hands were occupied with luggage, children or a cup of coffee.

Avoid pitfalls

To avoid these false steps and the pitfalls of inaccurate beliefs, project owners should conduct research and tests with real users in real-life situations as early as possible. It is important to understand that user testing should not happen at the end of the process of developing a product or service. Prototypes should be used to test ideas as soon as possible during the design process because it is better to fail early as it is still possible to set things right or explore different options.

Unfortunately, we often encounter project owners that do not follow this approach. In these circumstances, user testing is used predominately as a validation tool to reinforce the internal decision-making process rather than to iterate and deliver more relevant innovation. In addition, these skewed results are often used to push choices that have already been made and become part of a persuasive pitch during internal communication. These cultural issues limit the ability to innovate, and in our opinion, explain why so many devices we come across are either useless or unusable.

However, these methodological frameworks also provide an opportunity for cultural change within organisations. It is therefore vital for stakeholders to immerse themselves first hand in the real life experience in order to challenge the relevance of beliefs and design decisions.

This approach was used as part of the European research project Enhancing Interconnectivity through Infoconnectivity (IC-IC), which was conducted by a group of eight European stakeholders including Attoma and the National Applied Art School (Ensad) in Paris. For the project we used an ageing suit, which allows anyone wearing it to get a sense of what it is like to see one's capabilities diminished by ageing, with the suit simulating the onset of arthrosis, low tactile sensitivity, and visual impairment. We used the suit during tests of information devices at several European airports, and realised that while more and more senior citizens are able to travel on their own, if access to interactive terminals, such as information devices and vending machines, is poor, they are not accessible at all.

Our approach is not a magic bullet, but it may produce more accurate answers than traditional methods such as quantitative customer satisfaction surveys and testing, which are able to identify phenomena but not explain why they occur. Service safaris, which put testers in the shoes of a customer, and early rough prototype testing are great tools to broaden the understanding of users' journey experiences and behaviour, not only to come up with a practical and realistic design solution, but to enable stakeholders to experience real life and to understand the users' perspective.