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A sustainable working environment for SL:s traffic operators

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Everyday tens of thousands commuters travel with the subway operated by SL, Stockholm’s Local Traffic. At inUse we have worked on designing and developing a better working environment for those who work in the subway control room. And I’ve done it all to help the operators when they are chasing seconds in the control room.

It all started when the Swedish public transportation company SL in Stockholm reached out to us at inUse. They were in the process of upgrading one of the busiest subway lines in the Swedish capital – The red line. Because of this, the red lines control room also had to be renewed in the process, with a brand new office. Also, new technical equipment had to be incorporated. The change would create a brand new working environment for the traffic operators, with new digital it-systems and even more challenges.
Back then the operators had 8 screens, 7 it-systems and 7 keyboards to monitor per person at every desk! SL realised that it would be close to impossible for their staff to work if they added the 5 additional screens that the new it-systems required. It would worsen the working environment dramatically. Something had to be done and SL was looking for a big change to improve the day-to-day work for the operators.

The assignment was very challenging for me as a UX designer. A control room for a subway is an extremely complex working environment. My first action was to interview, observe and follow the users having a typical workday. I was in the control room a lot, constantly looking over their shoulder.

At the beginning of the project I also did a whole lot of research outside of SL. I went to Denmark and did a study visit at a control room of the Copenhagen Police. They are at the utter forefront and the visit gave me brand new knowledge and insights about the work in a stressful environment. From that visit I did my very first sketch where I imagined a dynamic view that flowed over several screens.

After a while many of the users were curios about what kind of work I was up to. To ease their curiosity I did a couple of internal presentations of my work. I talked about the purpose and goal, but also wanted to highlight the importance of the mission. Why the work in the control room has such a big impact on the everyday life of the average commuter in Stockholm. To emphasise that I did a quick estimate: If just one single second is lost due to a malfunction in the subway it will likely affect over 10 000 passengers. That adds up to a whole lot of hours in the end. Imagine the huge impact the operator’s work has on all of the people living in the Swedish capital. It affects whether Anders will get to pick up his daughter on time at the kindergarten. It affects if Lisa will make her flight from Arlanda airport. It affects whether Sofia will make it home in time to surprise her husband at his birthday. Thousands of people that are dependant on the red line and that the train will be on time.

At this stage in the process I learned how valuable it is, especially in complex project, to visualise the goal. When you work with one single technical detail it’s easy to forget the bigger picture and what the higher purpose of the work really is. As a designer you are constantly changing focus, from the holistic perspective down to studying the tiniest details. To connect the dots between the overview and the details are a big part of the job.

The more time I spent in the control room the more I noticed that communication was extremely importance. The verbal conversation between colleagues in the control room was a constant flow. They are an outstanding team; even the intonation of the voices when they spoke to each other mattered. Even cross talking was a natural and important part of their working day.

I had a true aha-moment when I witnessed how a train driver called in a faulty. He told the manager in the control room about a busted signal that he noticed. While the manager had his phone pressed between the ear and his shoulder everybody in the room tried to listen what was said and took action to help, based on what they heard. Solutions were discussed openly and everybody contributed with proposals to solve the problem. After no more then seconds the manager made a decision, gave the order and the frantic work began. That’s how intricate their workday is, every second counts.

On that occasion, I realised that the layout of the room is just as important as the digital workplace. For the staff in the control room to function as a great team we had to design a physical workplace that endorsed that way of working. This is a typical example of an experience, and gained knowledge, I never would have found if I had stayed in my office. To study the user in their environment is of utmost importance.

Sometimes though, I actually worked at my own office. I built my first own control room-prototype at my desk. I picked a couple of screens, put them on top of each other to try and see if it worked both physical and ergonomically. Could I see my co-workers and could they hear me if I wanted to give them an order? I knew that I had to create a dynamic environment that made it possible for the team to communicate fast and efficient when they are chasing seconds to help the commuters.

I soon realised that I had to think beyond UX at their own desks. It’s demanding to work in a control room environment. I consulted with an acoustics expert to find out how the room should be designed to achieve the best acoustics. We also hired an interior designer that helped us with colour and fabrics.  We were very careful and also calculated factors like lightning and disturbing noise. We created a concept that I truly and genuinely believe in.

One thing that was hard was the lack of general usability testing. We couldn’t give the users tasks to solve since there were a lot of spatial aspects at this point in the project. But when we got a bit down the road with both sketches and prototypes we did a physical mock-up. To build a full-scaled mock-up was a good opportunity to test the solution live, it was truly exiting.

When the mock-up was ready we invited everybody to an open house to try it out. We had put up a big paper sheet where everyone could write down his or her comments and thoughts. I was extremely curious to see the reaction of all the people as SL.

Because we we work iterative at inUse every project is a journey, where the solution can improve and be refined over time. We approach the problems and challenges together, with both experts and users, to create better prototypes, which in the end gives better solutions. The environment of a traffic control room is complex and there are plenty of challenges. I love that feeling when you solved a difficult problem and are one step closer to a truly great solution.

The most exiting part of this project was the complexity. There were a lot of parameters to take into consideration: technology, the screens, the desks and also sound and lightning. I love when I get a big project that for some people can be prevised as a bit vague. Then I will have to figure out what is important and map out where we can make the biggest difference. To go through the process: constantly improving, working iterative and then get to see the results … That’s when all your hard work pays off. I am making a big difference in these peoples lives and creating usefulness and that is the best feeling in the world for a designer.