CONSISTENTLY ranking at the top of polls of the world’s “coolest” and most valuable brands, Apple has developed a cult following in the last 25 years or so, with any new product launch receiving intense global media scrutiny and public attention.

Embracing cutting-edge design and a sense of high-quality, but without detracting from usability, has been critical to setting the company apart in the market. It strives to develop an emotional connection with its customers. And it’s been so successful that it can now charge almost double the price for its technology-leading products compared with its nearest competitor, Samsung, even though there is actually little to distinguish in their respective offers.

Steve Jobs’ decision to embrace design thinking upon his return to Apple in 1997 is widely credited for setting the company on its path to today’s lofty market position.

ConflansThis solution-oriented process attempts to achieve innovation by emphasising consideration for the consumer as central in all development stages. It is a concept now regularly deployed by other companies in the tech-sector and is gradually gathering credence in other industries around the world.

The executive management of French National Railways (SNCF) was exposed to these ideas during a visit to Silicon Valley in 2014. Clearly impressed by what he saw, SNCF president Mr Guillaume Pepy referenced design thinking during his address at the International Railway Summit organised by IRJ in February, where he outlined how he sees the railway positioning itself to compete in a changing transport market. “It is up to us to design solutions aligned with local needs and climates in order to better meet customer expectations,” Pepy said.

But three years on from their visit to California, how are these ideas playing out on the ground at SNCF as it shapes itself as a “mobility provider of the future?”

Gares & Connexions, which is responsible for 3000 French stations serving 10 million users every day, is as good a place as any to find out.

At its headquarters in the old Panhard factory building in Avenue d’Ivry, southern Paris, the visitor is greeted to an open plan office situated across multiple floors. In the far corner is a lecture theatre and conference room with capacity for 120 people, and in the centre, is a tower of glass-windowed meeting rooms, including the eye-catching open “boxing ring” meeting space on the roof. The ground floor features a café and various meeting and discussion areas, with old cars on display like trophies to the building’s past glories.

Design Lab

On the far side of the ground floor is the working space reserved for the Design Lab of Arep, a multi-disciplinary consultancy and wholly-owned subsidiary of Gares & Connexions, which was formed in 1997. This is where design thinking is being put into practice.

Arep provides design services for SNCF, in particular for station redevelopment projects as well as all station signage design. It is also leading station design projects outside of France, winning major contracts in China, including one for a new station in Chengdu, and the design contract for the new six-station line between Beijing and Zhangiakou near the venues under construction for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Other current projects include the Red Line metro extension project in Dubai.

During IRJ’s visit to the Design Lab, small teams of young people are discussing their work around big tables, while others beaver away at computers arranged on rows of desks.

Approximately 50 graphic, product and interior designers, and social science researchers are based in the Design Lab, and already their work is having an impact on SNCF’s offering for passengers.

Mr Pierre Flicoteaux, director of L’Institut Gares, Gares & Connexions training institute, says from “knowing nothing about design thinking three years ago,” the concept is now taking hold at SNCF. As project managers have been trained, and resources have increased, he says teams within the institute have worked to redefine and simplify the method, as well as convert it to French. It has resulted in some new tools and some encouraging results.

The projects vary in scale and deployment. Among the successes described by Flicoteaux is the distribution of simple yellow badges to staff handling passenger satisfaction surveys at stations. The badges present a simple message of “your opinion interests us,” which helps to reassure prospective respondents that the questioner is friendly, and has increased survey participation.

In Bordeaux, another project that has proven a big success in enhancing wayfinding in a dynamic and disruptive way, is the suspension of giant balloons displaying the hall number above the station concourse. Design teams have also worked to develop the “En Gare” mobile app. Initially developed as a prototype, and now available on for iOS and Android, it provides passengers with suggestions of things to do at the station depending on how much time they have available.

Other prototype projects include trials to improve safety in St Etienne. Here CCTV cameras, which are usually anonymous, are advertised to passengers in a fun way to offer reassurance. Cardboard cut-out characters on display in isolated areas at stations are also being used to comfort passengers travelling alone at night. Flicoteaux says that this has been proven to offer a friendly presence and an understanding that help is not that far away. Design thinking is also being employed to improve awareness of the ticketing requirements for SNCF’s Ouigo high-speed service. By using prominent posters and signs, passengers are reminded to validate their tickets before boarding the train.

Gares & Connexions is currently engaged in an annual customer satisfaction improvement programme relating to a specific theme. In 2016, the focus was on cleanliness with the objective of improving satisfaction by 0.5% at more than 100 stations where passengers are regularly surveyed. The Design Lab is contributing to this project and has incorporated design thinking into each of the new innovations it has put forward. For example, the leading design last year was Baryl, a robotic dustbin, which was deployed at Paris Gare du Lyon station in December 2016 ahead of a nationwide tour of stations in 2017.

Baryl circulates the station and offers passengers looking to dispose of rubbish the convenience of coming directly to them. Upon receiving any waste, the robotic dustbin issues a polite “merci.”

Flicoteaux says Baryl’s development is reflective of the multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving deployed in the Design Lab. The initial idea was developed by a start-up, Immersive Robotics, which came to the attention of the Design Lab through its work in the adjacent Fab Lab open innovation centre, another sector embracing design thinking. This area of the d’Ivry office fosters relationships between SNCF and start-ups by providing programmes exposing them to SNCF’s requirements, with a particular emphasis on developing digital solutions.

Manufacturing of Baryl also took place at a nearby industrial machine workshop, which offers free access to heavy and high-spec tools, and Flicoteaux says is similar to facilities available in the United States.


This sense of openness is replicated in the Design Lab’s Creative Room. Here employees from across the organisation, and from outside, are welcome to join design thinking workshops and creative sessions in order to familiarise themselves with design thinking, and to contribute their own thoughts and ideas.

“Being open is important for us as we can work people from across the team who need help,” says Ms Ariane Epstein, project manager for design, indoor architecture, at Arep. “In turn, mixing with people with other competencies can help our teams to open their minds to thinking in new ways.

“Design thinking can also help us to step away from what are very complex ideas and projects. It is often a strategic tool for problem solving. By going back to the customer experience, and by putting ourselves in the field, we can find the solution.”

Epstein says Design Lab teams are doing more than just station design, but actually using design thinking to reshape the greater urban environment. This is evident in another major project success of 2016: a bike sharing service which won the 2016 Design Thinking Innovation Contest, beating off competition from 52 other projects and netting its members a trip to San Francisco to observe design thinking in practice.

The aim of the project is to use more of the privately-owned bikes that are stacked up and dormant for most of the day at bike racks in cities across France. Under the system, individuals register their bike and the times they do not use it, and whenever someone rents their bike, they earn a fee as well as a discount on rates at repair partners. Access to the bike is granted through a smartphone app which will distribute a code to unlock the special padlock, with the bike insured throughout the duration of the rental.

The bike sharing team, while remaining separate from SNCF and Arep, is continuing to work on the concept within the Design Lab. The contest will run again in 2017, with the prize this time a trip to Asia.
Gares & Connexions’ 2017 theme for improving customer satisfaction is comfort, which Epstein says for the Design Lab is proving a big project and a major innovation challenge.

Altering waiting areas to offer a more relaxed environment was an early focus for the teams, with work including looking at materials that might be suitable to offer enhanced levels of comfort, with bamboo preferred for wooden installations.

The design team consists of three separate teams, two of which are working on developing products, spaces and solutions, and the third is working with the other two to experiment and integrate design thinking methods.
Critical to successfully deploying design thinking is prototyping. “We found that actual user experience is very different from how people respond in a survey of how they might act,” Epstein says.

For example, in a new project to develop a light rail shelter, Epstein says passengers’ answers to survey questions of where they might sit in an empty shelter if they were alone varied significantly from where they did in reality.

Following these observations, the passengers are asked why they sat in a particular position. Epstein says this feedback provides value and depth to the designers’ understanding of the product, and can help to change their mind or confirm their understanding of the solution.

“It’s a new way of doing things and we try to be agile throughout the project to cover its evolution,” Epstein says. “A few years ago, there was no testing during the development phase of the project. Prototyping, and using trial and error, helps us to view the development of every stage so we can get it right.”

Working spaces

Another project enhancing passenger comfort at stations is new dedicated working spaces for professionals. Initially introduced during the St Etienne design biennale at both the city’s main station and Gare du Lyon in Paris, the idea was to encourage speed dating for professionals as they waited for their train.

The concept proved extremely popular, particularly at Gare du Lyon with some people heading to the station just to use the dedicated Wi-Fi and power sockets for 15-30 minutes. It has since been expanded to several Parisian suburban stations, including Conflans Sainte Honorine, Monrfort l’Amaury Méré, Osny, and Vitry sur Seine, and will be available at 70 locations by the end of the year.

For Flicoteaux the strong take-up of initiatives such as this prove the validity of the design thinking process for identifying ways of improving SNCF’s offer for passengers, and potentially driving additional revenue by increasing footfall at stations.

He adds that Arep and Gares & Connexions remain open to ideas from outside - whether this is from working with start-ups, or observing best practice from around the world. Arep is also ready to deploy design thinking in its international projects.

So, as it embarks on some of the world’s most eye-catching station design projects in the next few years, the concept of putting the consumers’ needs first, born in Silicon Valley, could soon redefine how more and more rail passengers view and use stations around the globe.

“The most successful companies are using this approach and we are taking inspiration from them,” Flicoteaux says. “It is changing how we do our projects.”