Ph.D - Chief Experience Officer
Poorly Planned UX Changes Create Conflict
Commuting in Toronto can be a very frustrating experience, particularly if you are a cyclist. Despite the rapid growth in the number of cyclists that are commuting, the city lags behind in creating infrastructure. Almost half of Akendi’s employees in Toronto cycle into work, and can regularly recount tales of harrowing encounters with cars, pedestrians and other cyclists.
Given this context, I was happy when the City decided to redesign the stretch of the Harbourfront for the recent Pan Am Games. The purpose of the redesign was to create a right-of-way for the streetcars, separate cyclist paths, and improve the walkability of the popular attraction for tourists and locals. However, since the opening in June, the new Queens Quay is attracting a lot of attention, and not for a good reason. Cars are confused and driving into the streetcar tracks/tunnel. The situation with the new Queens Quay highlights the problems when the design conflicts with the existing mental models of users, and the change is poorly communicated.
The majority of the streets in Toronto where cars, streetcars, cyclists and pedestrians co-exist follow a common design, shown in figure 1 below. The inside lane is for streetcars (and cars if the lane is not a streetcar right of way), and the outside lane is for cars (and cyclists if there is no bike lane). Meanwhile pedestrians are separated from all vehicular traffic by a raised curb. There are disagreements over which configuration is the best, but everyone understands the model of how it works.
Figure 1 – Most common roadway configuration in downtown Toronto, excluding a few instance where bikes have separated (painted and physically) lanes.
Since Queens Quay is beside the Lake Shore, the designers went with a different layout, shown in Figure 2, that allows cyclists to continue along the Martin Goodman Trail that runs the along the lake. Travelling is easy once the user is in the correct lane, but entering into the correct lane is the primary source of conflict. Drivers, used to having the streetcar to their left, are turning into the bike lanes or into the streetcar right of way and getting stuck.
Another source of conflict is the lack of separation between the bike and pedestrian lanes that are usually physically separated. Although the bikes lanes and pedestrian paths are visually differentiated by material types (bike lanes are asphalt, the sidewalk is made from paving stones), the lack of physical separation between the bikes and pedestrians results in pedestrians crossing into oncoming bike traffic.
Figure 2 – Examples of new Queens Quay layout at 2 different points.
Pedestrian and cyclist collisions are also a common occurrence at intersections. Large crowds of pedestrians that are waiting to cross the road will completely block the bike path and don’t realize they are doing it. As see in Figure 3, the pedestrian sidewalk, indicated by paving stones, are used for the entire intersection, where cars, bikes and pedestrians wait. Pedestrians crossing to the right (North), will block the bike traffic that is moving east and west.
Figure 3 – Lack of clarity where to stand while waiting to cross, leading to collisions between pedestrians and cyclists.
So, the redesign is a dramatic departure from how users typically expect to interact with the roadway, forcing users to relearn. What hinders the learning is that there is very little, or poorly designed signage to communicate how to properly use the new layout. The road went from being closed and under construction (when all users would be more alert to an unconventional use of the roadways), to open and full of traffic, without properly preparing drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians how to behave under the new approach.
Designers need to align with the users’ existing mental model to eliminate or reduce the need for users to relearn how to interact with the new system. In situations where the design will depart from the existing model, designers need to support learning, prior and during use. While going through the design process, determine whether a strategy for change management is needed, and if it is, make sure it is in place prior to completing the design.
Ph.D - Chief Experience Officer
Dan firmly believes that technology must be created with the user in mind. Never shy to critique a bad design, Dan uses the Akendi blog to shine a spotlight on usability mistakes…and their solutions. Leveraging his background in engineering, computer science, psychology, and anthropology, Dan offers a unique perspective on the latest UX trends and techniques.