Legible London talk, Jan 12 2010

On Tuesday evening last week, Tim Fendley from Applied Information Group (a self-confessed “information designer”) spoke to the Cilip London branch about the Legible London project in conjunction with TfL, and the research behind it.

The aim of the project is to get Londoners, and visitors to London, walking more by introducing an easy-to-understand, uniform system of signs across the capital. Using visuals to aid “wayfinding” (basically, getting around, although there’s more to it) can get the message across quicker and easier.

Before Tim’s team designed a prototype sign, they investigated the way people move around. They broke it down into a graph with two axes (two sliding scales) – novice to expert and stroller to strider. An expert will know their destination and route well, a novice not at all; while a strider will have a definite destination and a stroller won’t mind particularly. Everyone favours a different mode of travel but the one we use can change quickly – a stroller in a street market, for example, will quickly become a strider when they need to find a loo.

The research also highlighted the dire state of London’s signposts – the team spotted 32 different sign systems for pedestrians within the congestion charging zone alone. There is currently no overarching organisation to control all the way directions are given. Different measurements of distance are used (metres, miles, yards, time taken…), signs are uncoordinated (a junction in Kings Cross points to that destination in three directions), there aren’t street names on all corners, signs are defaced and uncorrected, and some badly arranged signs are hard to read. Some signposts point to so many places that they are impossible to understand, while others give too little information – it is vital to “get a balance between information overload and information scarcity”.

A survey the team undertook with members of the public showed that people will walk for about a mile (15 minutes) before they consider another mode of transport. A large number of those surveyed were using the tube map to navigate overground. London is hard to navigate even with a map (winding streets, separate centres, Covent Garden for example is hidden until you enter). 7% of tube journeys taken in the centre would be quicker to walk – 9/10 stations within a mile of Covent Garden would be quicker to walk to, including the time it takes to walk to/from and wait for the train, so encouraging walkers would relieve the congestion there (£120m was spent on a plan to install escalators which failed with the recession).

Studies also showed that people with little knowledge of London often only know tiny pockets of the city, and use the tube to travel between them. Everyone has “blind spots”, so a sign system needs to fill in the gaps. People tend to use landmarks (big shops, museums…) and barriers (the river, a big road) to navigate. It is important “to understand how people think” so you can tailor a sign system.

Scientific study has shown that the hippocampus area of the brain is where we store directions (it is enlarged in black cab drivers); the brain records “place cells” of recognisable landmarks that build up over time. Part of the Legible London research asked people to draw a map of an area of London they knew well; many of them were incorrect, putting landmarks in odd places or to odd scale. Often the brain doesn’t record landmarks correctly – the maps showed “blind spots” in the subjects’ knowledge.

The next stage in the process was to build a prototype and test it out. The sign went through 293 iterations before the final design was selected. Every Friday the team took the sign onto the street and observed passersby and how they used it (a bubble idea showing how the different boroughs of London connected was ignored because it didn’t look like a map). They also constructed a mini-West End and observed test subjects moving around the space.

Google maps aren’t particularly good as walking maps – as a pedestrian you need to know the size of a street, where it is pedestrianised, what the main landmarks are and their scale – the 3D landmarks help in their visualisation. The maps are also oriented in the direction the walker is facing, rather than due north (though soldiers weren’t happy!) because it’s easier to navigate – this was expensive to implement but effective. 5 minute and 15 minute walking circles, radiating out from the ‘you are here’ point, show how easy it is to walk quickly instead of use the tube. The signs also tell you the next nearest tube should a station be closed, and have audio and travel info phone numbers on the side. The top of the sign is yellow to make them clearly visible. You “need to give people the confidence to try walking when they’ve not done the route before”.

TfL figures state that 2,600 interviews with the public were carried out (half before the signs, half after); 600 behavioural observations (following people on the street then tracking the info); and 100 functional tests (giving people specific tasks).

19 prototypes were placed around Bond Street (a confusing area, with the tube station actually on Oxford Street). In the first year, 1.9m people used the signs. Of those surveyed, 4% said they were lost down from 6%, 16% of journeys were quicker, those with knowledge of their position in the local area went up 9-15%, 85% were satisfied with the ease of use, 62% said the system encouraged them to walk more, 91% wanted it rolled out across London and, most importantly according to Tim (some of the other answers were probably skewed) there was a 49% awareness level of the signs after only 6 weeks.

The next goals are

  • to get all the London boroughs to agree on descriptors (what they call themselves officially – NoHo or Bloomsbury eg?),
  • to get the boroughs to agree to use the same signage,
  • go mobile,
  • produce hotel maps,
  • have maps on busstops,
  • have walking maps you can hand out,
  • to get street names on every corner, and
  • to roll out to the central London and Olympic boroughs by 2012, outer boroughs by 2015.

Q&A session

  • What about estate agent speak (NoHo, Hampstead, Midtown)? They advise boroughs to consult with everyone then agree and make a definite, final decision (retailers, developers, LRAs in focus groups). We need to agree on names and over time these will become stronger (Southbank eg), we can then use them to navigate  they act as a shorthand to direct people, need to be marked clearly
  • Not everyone uses the same model of navigation That may not be consistent but the signs include different markers and maps as tools
  • What about tube signs below ground? Showing landmarks at tube exits aids navigation, need signage there too
  • Do all the boroughs agree? Some boroughs wanted their own versions to fit their current brand but mapping shouldn’t be altered – an information system (as opposed to park benches eg) needs to be uniform so it works across the boroughs. We need to agree on a standard (the Microsoft Office of signage) if we want something everyone can use
  • How far will it extend? Central London boroughs have agreed in principle, the Olympic boroughs are in discussion and there’s a pilot in Richmond to test outlying areas
  • Do you need a map at every corner? Researchers map a walking network as basis of where to place signs, so no need to cover all corners. Key junctions and decision points are enough – and it has to be uniform again, PREDICTABILITY is crucial to build up trust in the system
  • Who will update the signs? They could be digital print maps behind glass, so could change immediately, but this is a big problem. The ideal is to have one central map of all the managed areas, which is updated as and when necessary. Each year the boroughs could be told what to update based on this central database

One thought on “Legible London talk, Jan 12 2010

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Legible London talk « Librarian of tomorrow

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