Talking about happy journeys

Movement, journeys and the desire to go somewhere to do something matter to people.

They are at the core of ourselves. This article summarises 7 development themes about this that have come out of my work in museums and in research.

1. Understanding movement

2. Supporting intent

3. Recognising space as dynamic

4. Using standards to structure journeys

5. Enabling conversations

6. Sensory auditing

7. Happiness

1 Understanding movement

“…the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world — to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next.”

Bruce Hood, The Domesticated Brain

We have brains to enable journeys and this is why movement matters in design for accessibility. People want to travel. It is the barriers within our built environment that block a fundamental desire to move and this is why accessibility is so important. Movement in a place, movement to a place: this is why loneliness and being stuck at home are such problems for all of us.

Just to give you an example from zoology, remember the Sea Squirt. That is a sea animal that has a brain to start with, travels to a spot, stops and then loses its brain.

Moving matters because it makes us ourselves.

2 Supporting intent

Supporting intent should be at the core of user centred design. Not merely in enabling journeys but supporting the breadth of human desires: to travel, to meet, to experience, to do and to make.

Don’t simply explore the moment a person is physically in a room or a building. Find out why they are there and what they wanted to do. It is those desires, those intents that design needs to support. The place is part of that journey which is driven to make by our intent.

For example, in our work at The Keep in Brighton we made tactile leaflets and audio for people to receive before they visited. Information to help them understand the journey ahead and to prime them about the place before they go.

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Entrance hall tactile map at The Keep

For the building itself, we then supplied more detailed maps that built on the previous materials and which enable the completion of the journey and meet the visitor’s intent. It is a layered approach to information that supports the person through the whole experience.

The problem can be that so many people cannot share the same intent in the same place, at the same time. This fluidity of many personal stresses in one place can create problems for the individuals, the people around them and the staff and managers of the space. It is this dynamic relationship needs support too.

3 Recognising space as dynamic

Architecture is not just the building and accessibility is not just about the physical adaptions. Natural space and built environments are dynamic. They are filled with life.

This is why user groups and research are important. It’s the actions of people and their reactions to places that show what is working and what is not.

With intent-based journey planning, it can be easier to map places and understand the stress points. These can be in the physical environment but also in the sensory and cognitive environment. A place can be too bright, too loud, too busy but it can also be too confusing, too full of information, too intimidating.

For example, in the Imperial War Museum’s World War One gallery, we designed the tactile map to both show the shape of the place and where the seats were.

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Tactile map in WW1 gallery of Imperial War Museum

The first issue was to enable people to understand how they would move through the place and have a sense of personal agency in the journey i.e. the sense that it is their capacities, their choices and their decisions that are being enabled.

The second was to enable people to know where they could rest, find a quiet place and recover their sense of self. Museums are big places; full of content and noise — people need gaps to rest both their bodies and their brains.

4 Using standards to structure journeys

Standards create trust and they provide familiarity. Standards matter as they help create equity of use. However, standards become a problem when they are reduced to a simple binary checklist of things done and undone.

Journeys are dynamic, full of individual purpose and desire, and standards should be for people not places. If the standard fails the person, it is the standard that needs questioning not the person.

The tension in standards can be seen, for example, in lighting. How can we support both the desire for lower lighting levels for people with some sensory processing disorders with the need for slightly brighter lighting for people with dementia? The individual needs clash, even when they are clearly reasonable. We need to use the standard as marker to start a conversation.

5 Enabling conversations

Making places accessible, using design and standards, is now about recognising limitations. The more we realise the breadth of capacities of people, the more we accept diversity, the more the limits of design become apparent. It is not possible to meet all needs, in all places, at all times.

We can build and specify and test but, in the end, the constraints of design and funding will never match the huge diversity of humanity.

We use design and standards as markers to build trust and open up conversations. We need to go beyond checklists and final design approvals to a world of ongoing conversations.

Adaptation is about listening and changing as much as is possible. By being honest and open about why choices between individual needs are made then standards can be set and we have the opportunity to explain why some changes cannot be made.

Conversation shows respect of people and not just standards, and conversation is not the end point. It is the start of a relationship.

6 Sensory auditing

These 5 themes have led me to start been running training courses on Sensory Auditing of places. I take professionals through their own buildings to understand how place can affect people differently and how the movement through an environment is part of the individual experience that we need to map.

Sensory auditing is a process to better understand place, to enable intent and to allocate resources efficiently. It allows physical changes to focus on key points and staff training to support conversation and assistance at places where personal needs may clash.

7 Happiness

In the end, this is all about happiness. Paul Dolan’s book Designing For Happiness shows how important intent is as part of personal happiness.

Happiness, from his research, is both in the feeling of the emotion and in the sense of purpose over time. Accessible design can be both artful in creating joy, the emotion, and intentful in supporting the sense of purpose.

Happy journeys

The themes I have laid out are a way of framing what I think is the brilliant opportunity for accessibility now. To recognise the foundations built through standards and professional advice and then to see more can be done. We need to understand individual human intents and recognise the desire to make journeys. We need to plan for conversations about successes and failures in places that meet specifications but are still not accessible to all. Happiness is a great goal. We can explore new ways of designing and listening to enable more people to have happy journeys.

I’m running a workshop on Thursday 7th April at the Centre for Accessible Environments in London on journeys and happiness. Hopefully I will be able to develop and share ideas from it in the future.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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