Friday, 5 June 2015

"People vs Graphic Design" - our take on the Clerkenwell Design Week conversation

Have you ever thought I can do better than that? Let’s not mention the mass hysteria when the London 2012 logo was launched!

Angus Montgomery, Editor of Design Week, held a talk on ‘People Vs. Graphic Design’, at the Clerkenwell Design Festival with its panel of graphic designers: Patrick Myles (RIBA Journal art editor), Sarah Hyndman (Type Tasting), Jim Sutherland (Founder of Studio Sutherland), Jonathan Barnbrook, and Tony Brook (Spin).

There are varying factors causing a clash between people and design from social to taste.  However, the general consensus at the centre of this crisis was due to people’s lack of understanding of what is graphic design and its processes, and how it should be celebrated and championed rather than be “the poor cousin of architecture and fashion”.

What is graphic design? 
Jonathan Barnbrook described it as “an intellectual exercise…part of solving the problem and producing a response” by using text, symbols and imagery. A solid understanding of composition is essential to visually communicate the message effectively.

Graphic design is too often misunderstood and considered an after thought. Maybe it is because its main output are on throwaway materials such as leaflets, business cards, brochures, reports etc. It would be wrong to think this. At its very best, it can unite and inspire a nation with a singular belief – Shepard Fairey’s poster of ‘Hope’ for Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign – or emblematic like Milton Glaser’s, I♥NY.

Natasha Chetiyawardana, Creative Partner of Bow & Arrow, believes designers are integral to how a business, brand or product can work – it can lead to a real and beneficial impact on people’s lives than merely the execution at the end of the project’s lifecycle.

So how can we get people to understand?
It needs to start within design education. Designers need to understand the value of their skillset and the impact it can have in business. We often forget it is another language, and to engage non-designers we need to use other means to help them understand whether be it through familiarity or social context.

Without reach, design runs the risk of getting smaller and smaller, talking only to a select group and becoming increasingly insulated and isolated. The social landscape is constantly changing, and if history has taught us anything, to create a movement, we need endorsement.

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Standing more at work?

There has been a lot of coverage in the media recently around a newly published study that says office workers should spend more time at work on their feet. The study focuses on the benefits of standing at work because a clear link has been established between productivity and standing for certain tasks.

Of course, as the study acknowledges, there are lots of other things that can be done in the workplace to help reduce sedentary behaviour. Sit/stand workstations are starting to become more popular in the UK (even we are about to practice what we preach in our office!) to give people more flexibility in their posture.  Office design is increasingly reflecting different work styles and providing a range of spaces that encourage movement around the workspace and can include more areas for standing meetings or work.

The key seems to be identifying this as an important design requirement and getting the client organisation to buy-in to this - if wellbeing is at the heart of the workspace design then these features can more naturally emerge.

In addition to passively providing opportunities for employees to work differently can they be actively encouraged and reminded to vary their posture depending on the task they're doing? After all there is still the concern that they can be underused and staff stick to their traditional desks as much as possible!  Do they need a nudge and a reminder every now and then?  Perhaps technology can lend the most effective helping hand in proactively prompting a change in the way people use space at work. For example, smart glasses could be used to encourage a change in posture if they detect the person wearing them hasn't adapted their posture at the same time as changing from one type of task to another (e.g. from data analysis to looking at emails). Alternatively, provided they are used tactfully, wearable trackers could encourage certain behaviours like standing for meetings.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Our perspective on the 2015 Salone del Mobile in Milan

Every year in April, Milan erupts with energy for the ‘Salone del Mobile’. You go to the Salone and ‘Fuori Salone’ for ideas not so much to see products. It’s an intense few days to concentrate on design, exchange ideas with colleagues and to be inspired. The event requires strategic planning as it’s vast. 

Here are a couple of memorable installations, one from the fairground which included Workplace this year.

A sculptural installation by Michele de Lucchi, one of Milan’s historical figures in design, ‘The Walk’. A ‘belvedere’ for unexpected encounters, a pathway through and over the four concept spaces. Different environments to enhance creativity and productivity ‘The Club’ , ‘Free Man’ ‘Lab’ and ‘Agora’. The Lab with its carpenters’ workbench picked up on the craft theme and extensive use of wood for many of the stands.

Elsewhere at the fairground there were many examples of adjustable height desks and tables to be seen reflecting the interest around health, encouraging movement and standing .

A free standing acoustic screen creates a sculptural backdrop, just one of the many acoustic devices and treatments to be seen.

An installation from ‘Fuori Salone’
Many of Milan’s hidden courtyards and gardens become populated with various installations for the week.

Here the botanical gardens of Brera hosted ‘A journey through scents’, an interesting and inspiring experience in a beautiful garden.

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Friday, 15 May 2015

Helping passengers by understanding their needs

Often the best ideas are the simple ones.

For anyone catching a bus in London during the rush hour has probably experienced a mad crush on the lower level only to find that the top level is almost empty.  For some, they like the convenience of sitting or standing close to the door.  But for others, there the lack of visibility of what space is upstairs along with perhaps an assumption that it must be busy and not wanting to go up, find it is full and have to head back down again.

So it's great that responding to this, Transport for London are trialling a simple indicator to show the availability of seats on the upstairs level.

You can read more about the trial at this blog - 

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Friday, 6 March 2015

iBeacons helping the visually impaired to navigate

In an earlier blog we talked about some of the uses of iBeacon technology.  In this piece from the BBC, TfL are trialling their use in combination with a smartphone app to provide accurate walking instructions to the visually impaired.

View the video >

When we did our research work for Guide Dogs for the Blind a couple of years ago, this kind of application was clearly something that would be of value in supporting wayfinding and travel.  It's only now as this technology for accurate indoor location finding becomes more available that such apps can be developed and put into action.

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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Why can't we get passenger information right?

Back in November Passenger Focus released it's findings on what passengers needed when things go wrong; it didn't paint a very good picture of how the railway industry handles problems.  The recently issued National Passenger Survey continued to show a high level of dissatisfaction amongst passengers.

We know it’s not usually done well because of the recurring story from passengers when things go wrong is “we weren’t told anything”. As travellers we all know the feelings this generates in us about the organisations we have to use.

So why can't we get it right?  It's clear what passengers need...

(1) Passengers want an explanation of the reasons for the delay.  This shouldn't be couched in operational language but in terms that are understandable.  It doesn't have to be about blame but tell them what is going on and make them feel like you are taking ownership of the problem.

(2) The main need is what is the impact on their journey?  Do they need to change their plans? How late will they be? This requires information to be specific - generic descriptions of lateness or potential cancellations don't help passengers make decisions.  Should they seek a different route?  Crucially what alternatives are available?  This is a hard one as it often crosses over to other operators.

(3) Timing of the information - can they be told before they set out?  Is it too late for them to find an alternative?  So timing is critical. We've seen examples of emails sent by TOCs about trains when they already departed and the passengers can’t do anything.  It doesn't help that trains are usually not considered late until after they should have departed.

(4) Consistency.  The same information must be available across the various channels – from information boards in stations, social media, other online sources, staff, etc.  We got examples of receiving messages warning of problems only for there to be no sign of similar messages at the station; this relates to...

(5) Information that can be trusted – as an example, we all know that we lose trust in the motorway signs telling us of tailbacks that never materialise.

(6) Make sure staff are the best informed people.  Nothing is more frustrating than asking staff and seeing them look up at the information boards - it shouts that they don't know any more than the passenger!

(7) Work all the channels – this means people and digital.  Digital good for broadcasting information but don't rely on technology: people are more interactive and provide a personal service

Perhaps the biggest barrier to delivering this is how operators are organised, how they function when things go wrong and how they collaborate with other companies.  The common mode we see is that organisations get into “fixing the problem” - all resources are put into sorting the incident and restoring the service.  Informing passengers and spreading the message to those on the front line is a secondary consideration.

Part of this is about being able to quickly diagnose and determine the actions.  In our view, the focus should be on better organisational and service design to get the information right and pushed out.  This needs to come ahead of investing in new passenger information technology: if the information pushed out is poor, more display boards or twitter feeds won't help.  This is especially true around consistency and quality of information across the different channels.  For example, social media is not different from information displays in stations and operators are realising this isn’t a function to be provided separately by the marketing team.  

We’ve done some work with some rail companies to try and shorten the chain of communication between controllers making decisions and those who disseminate information – so there is some appetite to address this but more clearly needs to be done. It would be great to see more innovation and more collaboration to really tackle this and do it right.

So step one we suggest is to look at your organisation solely through the lens of the passenger and providing better information and see where you can improve.

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Thursday, 29 January 2015

iBeacons - should we be pushing or pulling content?

iBeacons are causing quite a stir at the moment with a flurry of major companies, including airlines, retail giants and arts venues running trials and pilot schemes trying to work out how they can be employed, the benefits they may bring and how consumers react to the geo-position enabled devices.

The key battleground, as we see it, is the contest between enabling customers to pull context-relevant information when they want it vs. companies using the technology to push information.  The push model seems to have the negative potential to become intrusive and marketing led.

iBeacons are small, low cost, location transmitting devices, that can be installed in fixed locations within the built environment to talk to smartphones via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). They have the advantage over GPS in that they work inside and therefore can enable smartphone apps to trigger personalised messages and bespoke content to users when they come within close proximity to the beacons. In essence, the beacons provide the user with location sensitive information/content that has not before been possible within buildings. It also enables the provider to monitor where people are – for example, as shopper walks into a store or a passenger nears a check-in area.

Recently Tesco and Waitrose have both been running pilot schemes at single store locations with an expressed aim to boost customer shopping experience. Waitrose have developed an in-store mode to its app which, via the beacons, enables users to receive in-store offers as they approach particular aisles or food counters, read product reviews and add and collect items in a virtual shopping basket.

In another camp, Tescos are playing it more cautiously. Their trial is initially being used to deliver pop-up reminders to customers to pick up pre-ordered items as they walk into the store. Tesco have said they will be holding off pushing promotions, for the time being, over fears it could scare customers away from using the app if they are bombarded with messages.

Meanwhile in France, supermarket giant Carrefour have jumped in with both feet in its flagship Paris store, installing 200 beacons, which automatically open the Carrefour app upon entering the store then enable shoppers to be guided around the store in the most efficient manner to collect items from their personal shopping lists and/or recipe ingredients they have selected on their app at home. Their intention is to soon send geo-push coupons and offers to shoppers’ phones based on their location in-store and buying profile.

Over in the arts sector, the power of iBeacon-enabled apps is set to revolutionise the visitor experience within museums, galleries and exhibitions. Location sensitive content pushed to visitor smartphones and tablets as they approach exhibits has the potential to unearth a fresh new layer of rich and interesting information to support and entertain the visitor as they wander around the museum/gallery. Current thinking has proposed concepts such as:

  • Provide additional information about an exhibit to bring it to life. For example a video or sound clip describing the details, inspiration and interesting anecdotes about a painting. 
  • Augmented reality allowing the viewer to look back in time at the interior of a room via their smart phone screen. 
  • Present information in a large range of languages rather than the sometimes limited set on printed information. 
  • Provide suggestions of other artwork or pieces within the gallery based on items the viewer ‘likes’. 
  • Provision of contextual info which automatically pops up as the viewer walks past a painting/exhibit making interaction effortless. The viewer chooses whether to engage with the pop up…. or not. 
  • Provide dynamic routing around large exhibits and communicate proximity to facilities. 

Airports are busy transport hubs, with high passenger numbers who all have to abide by a set process and schedule. The airport also has a multitude of facilities, from retail, to dining to leisure. Within this dynamic and inherently multi-cultural environment there are opportunities for the application of technology and iBeacons to simplify or enhance the journey. SITA have recently published their research findings on the use of iBeacons in airports.  This includes automating the push of boarding info, automatically bringing passenger boarding card onto the smartphone homescreen when nearing checkpoints and advising passengers of the “rules” (e.g. remove liquids and laptops from your hand baggage) and informing arriving passengers of baggage timings and reclaim belt details.

Easyjet are also trialling iBeacons at three of their key airports allowing users of the Easyjet app to receive updates and personal info at key touchpoints. These include where to drop off oversize luggage, and personalising live boarding gate info to save passengers having to stare at departure screens. Virgin Atlantic are also on board with an iBeacon trial but appear to be pushing the envelope further with push notifications sent to passengers informing them of partner company promotions such as a currency exchange offer as they pass the TravelEx. They are also aiming to push notifications to passengers in the Virgin Club lounge when slots in the Club spa become available.

All of these trials and ideas show that there are different views and a very careful line to tread here between engagement and bombardment. So, are iBeacons the future of customer experience?

They certainly seem to offer an interesting opportunity to engage and communicate important useful information to users and to aide supporting navigation around indoor spaces. In the arts sector they can unlock whole new channels of information and entertainment. Most powerfully is what they can do in the provision of accessibility information and aiding navigation and travel information for hearing or sight impaired travellers.

However, there are clear concerns that the usefulness could easily be eroded by overzealous use for pushed marketing notifications.

We are interested in identifying positive applications where it can really make a difference to the users experience or interaction with a place. Our initial guidance on how iBeacon features should be utilised is that:

  • Features which enrich the users experience or make it easier and reduce time queuing are positive and should be developed further. 
  • Pop up notifications should be used sparingly and where companies believe they can deliver useful, usable content to the user.  The user needs to remain in control of what they receive
  • Language selection inline with the users smartphone could really aide international travellers who may sometimes struggle in foreign buildings. 
  • Geo-position targeted messages should not be use as a mass marketing tool. If it begins to feel like location targeted spam users will soon switch off and disconnect. 
  • Automatic pop up of a feature that the user needs to use - such as a boarding pass is good, automatic pop ups of adverts is not. 
  • Use of digital content should be seen as supplementing physical signage and displays within the building, NOT replacing. Physical signage communicates to all, not just those with smart phones and selected apps. 
  • iBeacon features have the potential to deliver accessibility information to passengers/users with hearing or sight impairments to help them navigate and access travel information. We see this as a genuinely powerful and positive use of the technology. 

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