Friday, April 02, 2010

Ad-hoc versus system design: the cases of railway station posters

Has anyone looked at poster cases at railway stations lately? If so one will see several different designs erected at various times. Careful inspection will reveal that different tools are required to open and update the contents.

This apparently minor detail can give hints about how passenger information is delivered to the platform and the extent to which this represents conscious design or a 'grafting on'. And what is regarded as standard practice for the architect or design engineer might not be favoured by administrators, and vice versa.

Different styles of poster case at stations

An engineer required to design passenger information at stations would likely specify just one design of poster case. All would be a common size so that savings can be made with bulk purchase of materials. And the same basic design would be reproducable in the future if needed for new or upgraded station. Standardisation implies inflexibililty in one area (unimportant to passengers) but permits flexibility elsewhere (to optimise the sequence of information presented to passengers) as posters can be swapped between cases if needed.

As an example, a government-funded station car park extension may have been finished long ago so promotion is no longer needed (the blank case pictured previously advertised this). Or the Myki ticketing system will eventually be as established as Metcard is today, so promotion space for it is no longer necessary. Meanwhile a rail occupation may require numerous additional posters. This is especially if it coincides with public holidays and special events. In such instances, all poster cases at a station are needed to fully inform passengers, and there is a risk that (say) a ticketing poster may occupy space needed for (more important) service information. Having standard poster cases should also cheapen maintenance as the range of replacement parts needed would be less.

The engineer would likely also specify one standard opening tool for all cases at the station. He would know that this assists the railway staff member whose job it is to replace posters as they would only need to carry one tool and not three. Needing only one tool reduces the chance of a tool being forgotten or lost and thus the chance of a poster or timetable not being able to be updated. Hence a simpler system based on one type of poster case accessible with one key should also be reliable than where there is a variety.

Other professionals would also agree, though for different reasons. The architect would want some unity of design, rather than the tacked-on look of many additions to stations. And the chance that non-standardisation causes some cases to be empty would worry the merchant or marketer who sees blank shelves or cases as selling opportunities lost. The passengers, most of whom are not in the above professions, would likely prefer whatever provides the most reliable information when they want it.

A differing perspective may be offered by the manager or bureaucrat. Managers might favour speed and short-run budgets compared to the engineer's standardisation or the architect's design coherence. Well defined goals such as an individual project's delivery may trump broader issues such as the passenger experience or sequence of information received. Those ordering new poster cases may work outside the railways (eg in ticketing) and could even want 'their' posters to have a different style and key. Manufacturing a short run just to continue an existing design may prove expensive, given there are no railway workshops anymore. Thus it could be more rational for managers to order poster cases off the shelf, even if they are a different size or uses different opening methods to cases already on the platform (photos below).

Standard type (used by train operator)

Promotional (used by Department of Transport)

Myki (used to promote new ticketing system)

The photos show that the manager or bureaucrat perspective has generally prevailed over that of the design engineer's. It also indicates that information may be delivered in seperate 'channels' or 'silos' (marked 'railways/existing ticketing', 'transport projects' and 'new ticketing') through different styles of poster cases for each.

This is mostly not too much of a problem. However instances can arise where one area (eg new transport projects today, rail occupations tomorrow) requires more information than poster cases reserved for it. In addition poster placement may not perfectly align with passenger information needs at different locations around the station, and the use of different poster cases may limit flexibility. Also as noted before, having a variety of poster cases and opening tools may have implications for overall system simplicity and thus information reliability.


Daniel said...

Interesting angle on the myriad of different authorities running PT.

Riccardo said...

Peter Parker is an asset to transport advocacy for his attention to detail.

I suspect a lot of 'never again' non-users of PT are lost because of errors and issues at the detail level, whether it be needless complexity in ped access (lengthening pedsheds), illegible infrastructure, poor signage, timetable nonsense, operational garbage, all stuff that people at the 'high level' miss.