On designing for ease

Arriving at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof the first thing you realise it that it really is a thing of beauty. Designed and opened in time for the 2006 soccer world cup it is a gleaming multi-layered intersection of shops, escalators, lifts and platforms. Lots of platforms. Some for trains, of course, others for the S-Bahn, still more for the U-Bahn. The challenge was to find, first, a ticket machine. This was harder than I envisaged and I could find neither that nor an info desk. Oh well, lets at least figure out where the platform is. That wasn’t easy either; I found myself on a U-bahn platform when I needed an S-Bahn. But at least I found out that the ticket machines were actually located on the platforms. After several escalator trips and detours I finally find the right platform.  

I found the ticket machine selected the instructions in English, tap the buttons and pop in my card before deducing that the lack of action means something’s wrong. Pulling out my card the display informs me this machine doesn’t take cards. Crap. I run through the same procedure and try and insert a “10 note. Seems it doesn’t take notes either. Uh. I fumble for coins, by which time the process has timed out. I realise I only have a couple of Euro’s in any case, change from a coffee I bought on the train from Amsterdam. I spot a machine at the other end of the platform and walk along to it, follow the same procedure. Thankfully this time the machine does take cards. 

That really didn’t have to be so hard, I reflected. Why? My first thought was that I’m just an incompetent traveller, clearly the intricacies of such an interchange are something that only a seasoned veteran of world stations and airports can navigate, based on an intuitive understanding of how these things work, one developed over years of travel. Expecting the legendary German logic, structure and efficiency to have made this a simple exercise, I perhaps headed into it a little naively. Even the signs weren’t obvious to follow. Then I figured perhaps it’s the opposite, that it’s all an exercise in trapping weary travellers in a twilight world meandering aimlessly around the station. 

But it really wasn’t either of those; at least, I hope not. I’m still in a western country. I’m not completely inept or phobic about traveling in Europe. Chile or Chennai, maybe. The instructions were in English so it’s not a language barrier, and I could even remember some of my A-Level German. What was causing my dissonance? 

I realised there is the power of the new. We are easily befuddled by unfamiliar surroundings. Behaviours that work on the London tube just don’t translate smoothly to Berlin’s U-Bahn. That may be the case. It’s usually why we can feel out of place in a new place: habits and routines are disrupted and things we do automatically suddenly require attention and thought. I’m just not used to how things are done around here. Things aren’t as smooth any more. 

Social norms are also different. I am as cash- and paper-free in my own life as I can be. Contactless and Apple-pay was no more available on the ticket machines than it was in the various cafes, restaurants and shops I subsequently visited, many of which proclaimed ‘cash only’. This all felt a bit retro, fumbling in a bag to try and put 7.70 in a machine or count out paper money to pay for dinner. Turns out that Germans still like the traditional (link).

Some User Experience / design thinking could have helped my ‘welcome to Berlin’ experience be a smoother one – I wonder if anyone ever followed a new arrival at the station to figure out how they handle it, a new person in a new place trying to do what everyone does in a railway station – make their connections. That’s a pure design challenge.   

Perhaps I should add a fourth to this list. I should stop thinking about this stuff so much. But as BB said on a recent Freakonomics podcast, there isn’t anything in the world that we can’t improve upon in some way. The first step of the challenge is to identify the things that cause a personal dissonance and could therefore be things worth improving. The next is to figure out if it’s just my own blind spot or an issue of wider social value that, if addressed, might make people’s lives a bit smoother, better or happier. Then things can start to get interesting… 

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