Information and mobility (3/3): designing systems for humans

Following its series on user experience, attoma will now focus every Monday on the importance of rethinking the way mobility information is communicated. This is a theme we deal with on a daily basis in our service design agency when working with key players such as SNCF, RATP, Société du Grand Paris, Transdev, STIF, SYTRAL, Grand Lyon, etc.

Previous article: Information and mobility (2/3): languages and dialects

Informing means communicating a difference

Any journey has a starting point and a destination, and between the two, the position of the individual varies over space and time. This translates into a route map and an estimated travel time. The key issue in information design is how to depict this situation to ensure it can be easily understood by the traveller who has to make decisions in their specific context.

In the early 1930s, when road signs became a necessity in the United States, a single agency was responsible for implementing common rules across all states. These same principles were later adopted relatively consistently all over the world, and will no doubt remain in place until the advent of autonomous vehicles, which will make information intended for human drivers redundant.

On the other hand, let’s imagine a world in which this convergence process did not occur, where every country, every region, every district, would have its own road signage syntax: it’s easy to imagine the problems this would create, when travelling from Paris to Milan for instance. Well, this is exactly what is happening in the field of multimodal and integrated mobility information (aka “combined mobility”). Except that we can genuinely question the chances of success of any global standardisation effort. We need to accept that we will never again have a truly homogeneous macro-system, a sort of universal lingua franca of mobility. This vision probably made sense back when road networks were being developed, when the number of decision-makers was limited and the governance models were centralised, but it is clearly out-dated today.

Now, the challenge of mobility information is to somehow balance two objectives: adapting information to every context and every individual, and producing homogeneous information that everyone can understand, everywhere.

In the many assignments we carry out at attoma, our role is essentially to advise clients on the best way to reconcile these two extremes, depending on the nature of the system, the local contexts, the technologies, the uses, the economic models, and the regulatory framework… And of course to take into account contradictory strategies and governance conflicts between stakeholders, which are sometimes absurd but most often decisive.

For instance, we have worked on a number of information system projects on screens in vehicles – buses, trams, metros, regional trains. You might think it always involves the same information: displaying the time, the next stops and connections, potential alerts in case of disruption, etc. And yet, it’s never exactly the same. We don’t need the same granularity of information for passengers on a suburban bus line with an exclusive right-of-way, and on a high-frequency urban line for example. The way in which the information is presented will never be exactly the same, as we have seen when carrying out this type of projects in cities such as Paris, Brussels, Lille, Dijon, Rennes, etc. Similarly, when looking at “disruptions”, it is clear that a metro line in a highly meshed network does not require the same type of information as a section at the very end of a regional train branch such as the RER C… Incidentally, I have nothing against the RER C, except that I do not understand why it was kept as a single line, even though the many new branches have created a sub-network with different services, making the whole thing perfectly illegible.

Simplicity: how about we actually design the world for humans?

So how can we introduce some degree of simplicity and stability? How can we ensure – beyond small dialect variations specific to every context – that the information is logically interoperable and accessible? While some people – modern-day polyglots – can somehow digest the informational syntaxes around them, others, less experienced or simply less interested, may not be able to access whole sections of an increasingly complex and fragmented mobility offer. Indeed, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, the extent of the mobility offer is in itself a factor of exclusion.

Our response to this may seem trivial: rather than hoping for a miracle, wishing on a brighter future in which the magic of artificial intelligence embedded in our smartphones will smooth out all the rough edges and inconsistencies of the world, how about we just stop designing terrible systems?!

Because even with the best intentions in terms of user-centred information and interaction design, it’s simply impossible to make sense of systems that never took the user into account when they were built. Sure it’s always easy to criticise (“If it were so easy, it would have been done already, right?”), but we hope that one day it becomes a reality. The question is: what should we do when we inherit a complex system, which was built up in successive and now inextricable layers?

A very simple approach has proven its worth. We call it Px3: Prioritise, Prioritise and Prioritise again. If the user were to be left with only one key promise or feature, which would it be? What about two? Three? Supported by rapid prototyping and testing, this method is unstoppable, provided that we take risks and think radically. Because at some point, faced with overly complex systems that were not designed for humans, some radical choices must be made! But is it easy to actually do it? Well, I challenge you to find someone willing – and able – to rename the RER C to finally have it make sense.

Do you want to know more? Engage a conversation? Contact us at

Giuseppe a crée l’agence attoma à Paris en 1997, après des premières expériences variées dans le milieu extraordinairement riche et stimulant du design milanais des années ’90. Depuis, attoma est devenue une référence dans le domaine du design de services, dont elle a été l’un des pionniers en France, et du design de l’expérience. Tout au long de sa carrière, Giuseppe a été porté par une curiosité inépuisable et par la conviction inébranlable que le design peut réellement contribuer à construire un monde plus facile à vivre, plus inclusif, plus durable, et finalement plus beau. En 2019, Giuseppe a décidé de rejoindre le groupe Assist Digital, avec lequel il a trouvé une résonance évidente concernant l’attention portée à la qualité des relations humaines et à l’engagement éthique dans le business.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *