As architects and designers, we know the importance of aesthetics, function, compliance and legislation for a project, particularly one in the public realm. But throughout the planning and design process – and even after a building is complete – it’s crucial to always come back to the user experience: the intended and the reality. Through qualitative research, we can better understand the varied needs of diverse users and design buildings and spaces that are more effective, efficient and enjoyable for everyone.

In the last 20 years, DesignInc has designed the upgrades of many transport stations as part of Transport for NSW’s ongoing programs for enabling accessibility, which aim to provide equitable access and a better experience for public transport customers. Together with Transport for NSW’s Customer Service team, DesignInc has researched the impact of the completed upgrades on the user experience, which will help to identify and deliver design recommendations for future upgrades within the current Transport Access Program (TAP).

“The TAP upgrades are currently in the third phase, and this qualitative research project is to determine if Transport for NSW is providing users with what they need,” says DesignInc Associate Megan Walker. Megan led the DesignInc team conducting the research, which involved intercepting people at train stations to interview them, as well as conducting formal interviews with people with various disabilities. “The objective was to find out how easy customers are finding the upgraded train stations to use, and unless you talk directly to people you don’t know what their experience is,” Megan explains.

Qualitative research informs the planning and design stages of all DesignInc projects, as the project teams collaborate with stakeholders and user-group representatives. This research project, however, focused on customers with accessibility challenges, including vision impaired, hearing impaired, elderly and wheelchair users, to ascertain how the station upgrades are serving their individual needs.

The findings were revealing and highlighted the distinct differences between people who are often grouped into the same physical impairment category. “One visually impaired person’s needs may be different to another visually impaired person’s needs, and the way they navigate the physical world is completely different and consequently requires unique solutions,” Megan says.

The findings also revealed the serious focus that should be given to the user experience of elderly in our community. They are a large and increasing percentage of our population, and with common issues such as fading eyesight, hearing, balance and mobility, they rely more heavily on public transport as their driving capabilities diminish.

“We have a tendency sometimes to make assumptions and generalisations about users’ needs for projects in the public realm. We have to remember we are designing for people, and their needs differ greatly,” Megan explains. “As architects, we are very focused on the visual outcome of things, and meeting client contracts, legislation, compliance and budgets, but we need to always step back and remember who we are designing for.”

DesignInc Collage

The research team shared its insights internally with DesignInc staff, and the findings and design recommendations are being used to inform other projects in the public realm, particularly in the transport sector. Determining if a building is (or isn’t) working as intended, and ascertaining what was (or was not) done well from a customer point of view is important feedback for future projects. “That feedback loop will guide us into and through our next projects,” Megan says.

A user’s experience is personal and subjective, and results from the combination of their abilities, perceptions, feelings, memories and associations of a journey. Designing for the multitude of user groups, and the pluralities within those groups, will contribute to more effective and efficient buildings and spaces, and most importantly, to positive, safe and stress-free user experiences.