David’s War Story: Suit yourselves
By Steve Portigal at 12:00 pm, Monday December 17 2012
Part 38 of 57 in the series War Stories

David Serrault is an Information Architect and Experience Designer for SNCF, in France.

It took a long time and several discussions with the stakeholders from SNCF (the French railways operator) to receive authorisation for a field investigation using old-age simulation suits. We were to focus on Gare Du Nord, the largest railway station in Europe. The station hosts more than 190 million passengers a year, including commuters, long distance travelers from all across Europe, businessmen and tourists from anywhere in the world. Gare Du Nord is filled with people in movement, following their daily routine or finding their way in this complex ecosystem of platforms, corridors and stairs, all managed by several operators.

I have always been fascinated by railway stations. Even more than the airport, I think that they are like temples of modernity, ruled by time and noisy, heavy, industrial technology.

The goal of this onsite experiment was to evaluate the gaps in the information provided to travelers, especially older ones. The old-age simulation suit makes the user feel the constraints of an elderly person. The suit, made in Japan, looks like a kind of kimono such as one might wear for practicing judo. But this one is green and red, covered with belts and weights in order to simulate the physical constraints of an old person. Also, you have to wear glasses to restrict your visual field and reduce your ability to perceive contrasts as well as ear plugs to reduce your hearing.

We were four: my friend and colleague Christophe Tallec (a French service designer) and two students. We set out in the morning for our day of experimentation. Indeed we were a bit worried by working in such a crowded public space. Even with an official authorisation from the station officer it was difficult to imagine what the reaction of the police authority and the users of the station would be. The place had been a scene of a spontaneous riot a few months before, when a young boy from a low wage suburb commonly called “Banlieusard” had been arrested and assaulted by the police.

The main difficulty we faced was more a logistical one. Each of us was to attempt a pre-defined journey through the railway station but we had to find a place to put on the suit. Eventually we did this behind some ticket vending machines that were close to the bus station. Not a very intimate place, but good enough!

Surprisingly the police simply came to ask us what we where doing and then let us do our job. We didn’t encounter special reactions from the passengers who seemed to deliberately ignore us.

This experiment was a revelation, especially for the youngest members of the team. We realised how many constraints someone with physical limitations can face during journey through a public space like this one. These spaces are dedicated to people flow, but disabled or challenged individuals are like aliens. There are many initiatives to make these areas accessible and readable but how can this be a priority for an organisation that has to manage daily security and transit efficiency for millions of people. It is a huge challenge for the designers and the architects who work for these places.

Eventually we realised that indeed a few passengers were staring at us, especially ones who were dressed as Sailor Moon, Naruto or other manga and video game heroes. The day of our research was also one of the largest conventions for Japanese culture aficionados in Paris. Japan Expo is known for its concentration of “cosplay” practitioners; many these young adults were simply in their costume to the event by public transit.

From their side, I suppose they were wondering what kind of manga persona we were playing. From my side, I felt like I was at the meeting point between modern and post-modern times.

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