Ramp requester

Jul 19, 2015

Design solutions for train accessibility

I recall an incident where I was waiting for a train at a station here in Amsterdam. A gentleman in a wheelchair, was also waiting patiently for the train to arrive, alongside many others in the morning rush hour. When the train arrived, everybody boarded, except the man in the wheelchair.

Unfortunately we are not at the stage where wheelchair users can access trains without assistance, and ideas such as this permanent retractable underfloor ramp are simply sketches, which would require a great deal of funding before they could move from concept into design, and production.

Permanent retractable underfloor ramp sketch by MKWUG1
Permanent retractable underfloor ramp sketch

The train was delayed for 5 minutes, before the railway staff were able to come and assist the passenger onto the train. I remember looking at this lone figure from the carriage, and imagining the distress that he was going through - sadly, judging by the tutting, some fellow passengers didn’t appear to be thinking the same.

Researching the problem

Whether in the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands, it is suggested that wheelchair users contact the respective rail authorities 24 hours in advance of the journey, shockingly the NS in the Netherlands also suggests travelling outside of peak hours if possible.

If possible, travel outside peak hours which are usually the busiest hours on the trains.
- NS, Preparing for your journey

This surely goes against inclusion, and offering solutions to all regardless of ability.

While doing more research I found that the problem I witnessed during my commute is not an uncommon one, when speaking to a lady from the UK, who shared her son’s experiences, she said:

“This usually works well, but on occasion, on return journeys Sheffield [staff] do forget and his carer has to hold the train up until someone comes”

Even worse, when the final destination is not at the end of the line, then there are even more problems:

“…if [he] was travelling alone totally relying on the train staff and they do not turn up, he ends up in Nottingham [instead of Sheffield]”

If this happens, then imagine the constant worry that you would have with each consecutive journey.

The current situation

Both the NS in the Netherlands, and Britain’s National Rail Enquiries offer apps to download for commuters, these apps are great for commuters who want information readily available on their mobile devices, such as train times and delays.

The National Rail app, lacking actionable content for disabled passengers
The National Rail app, lacking actionable content for disabled passengers

The National Rail app has an accessibility and mobility access section, which does contain useful information, although none of this content is actionable; more a feed of info. This information is found by navigating to the station’s section, searching for a specific station, and then swiping down before it can be found. In comparison the app has a section for cyclists in the main navigation.

This is more than what the NS app offers though, it has no information for disabled passengers at all, who would need to visit the website to access the above.

Looking for solutions

Firstly, I like to define the problem, define the target audience, and then look at ways that this problem could be solved.

The problem is that wheelchair users cannot easily access trains from the platforms without the need to request assistance in advance.

Solving this problem could involve industrial design solutions, such as the retractable ramp idea, it could involve customer design solutions, such as a dedicated accessibility team located at each station, or it could be a targeted app with a clear objective.

The industrial design solution would be, and should be, the ideal scenario. Giving access to all whenever and wherever should be the benchmark we aim for - Whether it is down to cost, or politics, we are not there yet.

A brain dump of needs, questions, and solutions
A sketchy brain dump of needs, questions, and solutions

Although there was the temptation to add more options to the pre-existing apps, and keeping inclusivity as the focal point, I chose to focus on one specific app that tackles just one problem - enabling wheelchair users to request a ramp quickly, and easily.

The app would need to be authorised, to prevent anybody from requesting a ramp, and reducing the risks of abuse. It should contain the useful tasks and information that the current apps contain, such as planning a journey, finding out costs, changes, and time. It should also aim to improve the current situation, and to ensure that mistakes such as the one highlighted earlier do not occur - passengers should be assisted on and off at the respective stations.

Design

I looked into the various workflows before jumping into my design tool of choice, and settled on one which focused primarily on planning the journey, and requesting a ramp, with a secondary task allowing the user to rate their experience.

App workflow for Ramp Requester
App workflow for Ramp Requester

With the workflow tackled (at least conceptually), focus shifted to the Network Rail brand guidelines, and keeping the clean, simple, modern design of the NS app in mind, I started work in Sketch.

Onboarding and sign-up screen
An onboarding, and sign-up screen

The onboarding process should explain the key task within the app, and allow other secondary tasks to be found via discoverability.

The sign-up screen requires the name of the card holder, and the railcard number, to ensure that this is a valid user, and to create a greater barrier to those who could potentially misuse the service.

The journey planner, and request screen
The journey planner, and request screen

The journey planner should lead to a list of results, and finally to an individual journey page which summarises the steps of the journey. This screen is what allows the user to perform the primary goal - to request boarding ramp(s) at the necessary platforms.

A list of trips, and the rating screen
A list of trips, and the rating screen

A secondary goal of the app should be to improve the service, and to do this I feel that there has to be a level of accountability. If a station is underperforming, then improvements could be tackled at this level, rather than trying to implement costly fixes nationwide.

These ratings could be collected, so the individual station can see how they perform at the various stages of the journey, as the departing station, as a connecting station, and as the final destination.

Prototype

The prototype below covers all of the above, and more. For mouse users, a click is the equivalent to a tap, and to swipe through the onboarding screens, simple click, hold and drag.

Next steps

Feedback is actively encouraged, so please leave comments below. As with all concepts, if this was a real product, it would undergo rounds of usability testing, and iterating, before it would ever hit the app store.