What is human factors?

Put simply, human factors (HF) is the science of understanding how people interact with their environment – emotionally and physically. Ergonomics is often thought of as a sub-set of human factors, focusing more on the physical interaction. The real value of human factors as a discipline is that it avoids an egocentric approach to design. Different viewpoints are taken into consideration, ensuring that solutions are more inclusive and embracing. When it comes to a station that’s being refurbished, it plays a very significant role because it stops the tendency to think that simply because something has been done in one particular way it should continue like that. Staff might have accepted something because they’ve got used to it, but it might not work for passengers, and refurbishment gives the opportunity to reconsider it from a different perspective.

Why is human factors becoming more important?

The railway is undergoing a revolution. More and more it is moving away from an operations driven mind-set to being much more customer-focused. That means what matters above all else is the customer experience. To achieve a positive customer experience in our stations, human factors has a huge role to play in understanding passengers and their differing needs – for example what are the needs of a mum with three children compared to a commuter? And how does that differ from the needs of a disabled passenger? Once we understand passengers’ needs, rail operators are much better placed to deliver what’s required.
But it isn’t just about how people feel at the station or on the train: these are just one part of the door-to-door journey that the passenger experiences, and therefore it needs to be joined up. The passenger won’t remember how easy it was to buy a ticket if the train is dirty or their seat reservation is wrong. It’s about getting the whole journey right and making sure the different services work together. That’s why the gimmicks and the isolated bits of ‘passenger experience’ technology don’t always work as well as hoped. A human factors approach is even more important in the current fragmented structure of the railway where different services are provided by different organisations.
Human factors has become more important because of the investment in new and refurbished stations. At the moment we’ve got Crossrail and Thameslink seeing massive investment, and this means the level of work going into stations is phenomenal. As a result we’re seeing human factors playing a significant part in the re-development of stations on those lines. Stations such as Manchester, and Farringdon and Blackfriars in London are also seeing the benefit of human factors thinking as they are re-created.

What do you mean by the passenger experience?

Passenger experience has become a hot topic in public transport especially for airports, but it is equally applicable to the rail sector especially now that the revolution in social media means that customer feedback on that ‘experience’ is loud and public. The reputation of the service provider or operator is quickly formed and changed on the basis of how it delivers the experience. When talking about ‘experience’ we should be asking: is it about services and things we can do at the station? Or is it actually about how we feel…feelings about stress, security…attitudes, beliefs, perceptions…how do the things we interact with make us feel? How does the total interaction make us feel rather than just the elements? Providing a positive experience should be at the heart of the design of environments, products, staff roles, etc. – all the touch-points with the service. Passenger experience should be the thing that unites the various elements of the station. We think it is an area where human factors, design research and design thinking need to be at the centre of the approach to getting it right.

So does this mean that human factors is only important in the public spaces such as concourses or platforms?

No, on the contrary, if we look at the three key staff groups – service staff, operational staff and maintenance, what human factors allows them to do is to work more effectively and therefore provide a better service to the end user – the passenger. Up until three or four years ago human factors and ergonomics were predominantly focused on the back of house – the operations and safety side of the rail industry. But the trend is now focused on applying it more directly to passengers and their needs. This is a reflection of the rail industry itself becoming more customer-centric. So by using human factors in frontline service, operations, and maintenance, the railway can better meet its objectives.
So for example, on the operational side, we look at changing the philosophy in how the control function works to provide better information. HF work is effective in looking at, for example, how decisions in the control room affect passengers, as control room staff need to be given the right tools to do their job.
Equally service staff need to feel good about the organisation they work for – part of their role is to represent their employer, so they have an important role to play. HF helps make staff feel valued and appreciated…so that might mean that when it comes to station refurbishment we look at the staff facilities, staff rooms etc. and ensure these are attractive and well-designed spaces.
For maintenance staff too, we look at their challenges. For example if lighting is placed too high, or is difficult to reach, then what tends to happen is that when bulbs blow they are not repaired, giving a poor impression, and potentially increasing passenger concerns about safety and security. Refurbishment can ensure that there is a good level of design that goes into the back-of-house facilities as well as the customer facing areas…the public spaces.

What steps are involved in creating a great customer experience?

Naturally, we start with the passenger and trying to understand them as a person. This is more than market research of ‘What do they want?’. It’s about understanding behaviours now and predicting needs into the future. This is often done using broad groups of user types with the assumption that there is commonality – but in reality there is no such thing as the ‘business traveller’ for example. Our needs as passengers are complex, dynamic and individual.
It’s also often never the same as how the designer sees the world. In one of the major station projects at the moment, this research has taken place at the earliest possible stage, the master planning, meaning that the results can have much greater impact on the final design. The research covered passengers, their behaviour and differing cultures, their needs and their door-to-door journey to create the wayfinding system. The data has been used to map all the decision points throughout the station enabling the team to define passenger information needs and information hierarchy at each point. The studies have shown how different passenger types will interact with the architecture and spaces within the station – for example the route a passenger arriving at Manchester Piccadilly might take to connect with a train for Stoke on Trent, or how a traveller might get from the car park into the station, pauses to look at the customer information system to find the next train to Bristol, then walks to the ticket office to buy a ticket, then on to the cafe to get a coffee before going through the gate line to the correct platform. We know, for example, that commuters always try and find the quickest route, tourists are faced with the unknown, and the less able passengers need to be given suitable support. From this information and research we can create story boards and prototypes. Ultimately it can and should involve passengers reviewing the designs. The aim is to provide passengers, whether regular commuters, infrequent rail users or passengers with reduced mobility, with the smoothest and easiest guided route from point to point.

What other areas does human factors impact on?

Ticketing is a constant challenge on the railways, and human factors is helping make substantial improvements here. We look at how tickets are sold both now and in the future (where smart phone technology will become ever more pervasive) and help make the process and the interaction as easy as possible.
During station refurbishments, HF experts can look at how the facilities suit the task of selling tickets. Are the ticket offices comfortable and efficient spaces for ticketing staff to work in? How does their position mean they interact with passengers? Do they have to move awkwardly when they are completing a booking and issuing a ticket? When looking at ticketing we will review, and get staff involved in, understanding space layout and space efficiency, and may well mock-up the ticket area to see how it will work in the real world.
There is the increasing drive for self-service and the removal of the traditional ticket office. HF is important to make the devices we are left with as usable as possible – how easy they are to find, whether they are confusing to use, how they inform passengers about ticket options in an easily digestible format so they can make the best choice etc.. Obviously in the future, people will start using mobile phones to buy their ticket and rather than print them out, they will be available in a digital format (you can do this in some European countries already)…. this is where HF will have an impact ensuring that the digital process meets people’s needs.
Human factors can also take a wider perspective on this issue and look at the wider service around ticketing. If the ticket offices are closing and we are reliant on devices and TVM’s, then how do we get the human touch into the process? Can we re-deploy the staff to a more front-of-house role away from being behind a desk?

What about on-going maintenance?

Stations are designed by architects who tend to have a great understanding on the bigger picture, human factors experts tend to look at matters in more detail at the individual experience. Maintenance is one area we look at very closely. For example, in confined spaces, tasks become more difficult, or impossible…and the increased difficulty will reduce the frequency of maintenance or the safety of the staff. When maintenance becomes less frequent, it impacts not just on the efficiency of the station, it also impacts on the customer experience – you see we keep coming back to that. If the toilets are dirty, the staff unhelpful or absent, the ticket machine out of order, none of the flashy stuff will make any difference. So we will look at the fabric of the station, the services and see what are the potential challenges for the maintenance staff to make recommendations.
With all the refurbishment work that is going on at stations across the network there is also the need for using human factors to help manage temporary and possibly counter intuitive passenger flows, the close proximity of construction site workers and equipment, temporary facilities, signage and hoardings all while carrying on our daily business. These can all impact on the passenger experience – so while the long-term benefit will be achieved, in the short-term too often passengers are forgotten about. Temporary but highly flexible wayfinding which can evolve with the scheme, alongside additional information provision across all passenger touchpoints reduces confusion and improves efficiency. In other words, a toolkit of strategic and tactical solutions needs to be developed to help ensure that smooth running is maintained and that the passenger experience of the service provided during these works in progress is as good as it can be.

Do the same rules apply in all stations?

Not at all. In smaller stations, there are different considerations, where you might find that effectively the ticket office and control room are combined. In that sort of situation there are different needs as the communications and other elements interact differently. What remains absolutely core though is the people…whether they can do their job well, efficiently and safely. Increasingly stations are interchange points, so HF is helping operators understand how the rail station fits into a complete journey, wherever the start and end, and whatever the original transport or onward transportation are…whether that’s private car, taxi, or pedestrians.

And how will people be able to point to something and say it’s better because of HF input?

Well the truth is, they won’t. That’s the entire point, HF input means that everything works better…as it should – it’s unnoticeable. In contrast, if you’re inconvenienced, or uncomfortable as a passenger, if you’re working in a control room and the screen is partially obscured that’s most likely because HF thinking has not be used in the design and development.

And finally cost? Budgets are always constrained, so how much extra does HF add to the overall cost?

HF consultancy is a tiny fraction of the overall cost of a station refurbishment. If we take London Bridge, which is a multi- billion pound investment, the HF work has cost a few hundred thousand pounds. But the reward will be a much better, more efficient station…and when passenger satisfaction levels are measured, they will be much higher.