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What a Melbourne train station can teach us about problem solving

By: Joanne Lumsden
Date: May, 2015
File under: Articles

In 2013, Williams Landing train station was commissioned and built for $110 million. The design required accessibility for disabled commuters. The solution was a ramp. But was it the right solution? The ramp is so long it needs a rest stop along the way! This is an example of a solution that addressed one issue but created another in the process. Not to mention, people generally just use the lift anyway – it’s quicker!

Although it is likely that the architects considered the ramp early in the design process, I question whether they actually did any testing of the design before building it. Did they consider how commuters would use it day-in and day-out? Did they try it out with a wheelchair or ask a disabled person who has difficulty with stairs to attempt such a steep climb? It’s not likely.

Solving problems without creating new ones is no easy task. Projects that address complex challenges often span multiple disciplines and need to consider, research, strategy, design and development. It’s not often that the same person, team or agency will oversee all of these things. It’s during this progression of a project from person to person, that a lot of the findings and focus on the users’ needs that were discovered in the early stages can be lost or misrepresented by those working on the final product or implementation. This is when new problems can be created when you may have solved others – as everyone isn’t aware of the whole picture.

So how can you ensure you solve a problem without creating a new one? And ensure that everyone working across the project will be knowledgeable and empathetic to the user?

The answer? Step back to factor in all parts of a project at the very start. Understanding the entire project and everyone who is involved (specialists, clients and users), so that you can see how all the skills and requirements of the project link together – or don’t.

As a UX researcher with a background in design and development, I have a generalist understanding of the whole projects deliverables – from discovery to delivery. Here are 4 skills I draw upon to help ensure new problems aren’t created in isolation along the way.

Design with empathy

Empathy for your user is important, but placing yourself in the user’s shoes isn’t easy. Discovery via workshops and user testing can illuminate incorrect assumptions and biases everyone has – including myself. By testing early and often throughout the project, you can confirm ideas and discover new ones that you never would have thought of.

Design with accessibility

Rather than think of accessibility guidelines as a restriction to the design, think of them as an opportunity to move on from subjective design considerations that can often bog down a process and waste time. Conversations such as “Does this font look good at size 11px?” become “This body content needs to be 1.4em – now let’s move on.” Accessibility guidelines also help you speak with authority on design decisions like font size, colour and layout order.

Design with code

Design with code in mind. This helps with layout decisions, interface behaviors and the understanding of how assistive technology will read the content. For example, a left navigation menu may be placed at the bottom of the HTML with the main content first. The assistive technology will read the content first. The CSS, however, may place the navigation area visually before the content area. It’s highly recommended to have a working understanding of front-end code (HTML & CSS). Even if you can’t write it, you should be able to read it.

Design with pattern

Layout, typography, shape, colour, imagery – all of these elements of a website should be considered in the initial stages of a project. Not only does it save time, but helps ensure continuity across the website and associated mediums. Clean, consistent page design also assists in ease and predictability of the sites navigation for all users. By having an initial style guide that is in flux during the entire project, you can effectively use research and findings to contribute to and confirm design decisions and deliverables.

In summary

If you don’t have the luxury of having all information at hand, or all your ducks working in a row… Next time you are working a project that spans specialties, the best course you can take is ensure everyone who is working on the project is aware of your user’s needs and the direction you have discovered to resolve them. Furthermore, make sure you collaborate as co-creationists, and familiarise yourselves with each other’s different skills that contribute to the project as much as possible.

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