London is our lab

Marcus Southon
By Marcus Southon under Insights 16 February 2017

At TAB, we exist to build products and services that make the world work better and add new value - for businesses, and everyday people like you and me. Over the past seven years, one particular industry has given us tremendous scope and opportunity to achieve that: transport, or, as we will refer to it in this post, mobility.

Mobility comprises the companies, bodies, products and services that help people get from A to B and in so doing, directly affect our social and economic lives at a local, national and even global scale.

Mobility providers operate in a dynamic and complex space, and, for the first time in history, most of the world’s population live in urban environments. Urbanisation, combined with the supercomputers in our pockets, are changing the way our cities and their inhabitants move.

Over the last seven years, we have built many mobility products in one of the greatest test labs in the world - London. Our ancient, complicated and fabulous city combines some unique challenges, like an ageing Victorian infrastructure combined with the exciting possibilities of a vibrant start-up scene and with high tech adoption.

Londoners themselves are highly mobile, taking an average of 781 trips a year, totalling 2 full weeks of their time spent just getting from A-to-B. Mobility services in our capital, therefore, are so closely interconnected to a unique physical environment, and the behaviour of the people within it, that we believe these services cannot be designed or even upgraded in isolation.

It’s no good, for example, building a journey planning app from the comfort of an innovation lab. Instead, we believe that to deliver transformative results, services must be designed in the context where they will be used, with the people who use them - and you must always be ready to pivot, adapt and test for the best solution. At TAB, we often think of this as building products ‘in the wild’ - and you can read more about it here.

Below are three examples of how we have used this approach when helping our clients rethink mobility in one of the world’s greatest cities.

Empowering the people who keep London moving

London’s public transport infrastructure is essential to life in the city, and it is the primary way Londoners, tourists and visitors get from A to B - the annual number of passengers is a staggering 1.34 billion. This complex system has over 30,000 people working round the clock to keep London moving.

Most of this workforce can be found in the stations, trains and buses that we use daily. For them, the power, ease, and accessibility of mobile is transforming the way they work. To date, we have successfully shipped nine products for Transport for London that help staff across every aspect of the organisation serve the public more efficiently.

To really understand the day-to-day issues that can occur when keeping an entire transport network like London’s working, we get out into the field as much as possible with frontline TfL staff. For our product teams, this first hand direct experience is essential, and always identifies a range of real world challenges and opportunities that simply cannot be seen from a collaboration hub, or from an office window.

A good example of this took some of our team deep beneath London, into the sprawling Underground. We developed an iPad app (shown below), currently in pilot phase and known as Decelerator, that could accurately test the brakes on a Tube train - back in TAB HQ, the users we tested with loved its simplicity. However, it was only in the tunnels that the flaw in our interface design emerged.

Transport for London Decelerator app

The bright light of the original screen reflected off of the train windscreen, causing a lot of glare that would have been unsafe under normal conditions. We were quickly able to change to a new, darker design that was much more fit for purpose and ready for immediate testing.

Learning at speed by building a new on-demand proposition

Given the rise of new consumption models, providing access to goods and services without the need to actually own them, many people in large, modern cities ask the question ‘is vehicle ownership necessary anymore?’ With other pressures looming, like the threat of global gridlock, car manufacturers are exploring this change in attitudes.

We worked alongside a leading global car manufacturer on a two year experiment to tackle this exact question. The product idea was a whole new kind of on-demand car service, with the aim to offer London drivers more flexibility in their choices. But underpinning this work was a much bigger question - is this service a viable one? Does it really address a need, and will it unlock new value for both the business and car drivers? The lessons learned were just as valuable as the experimental product itself and would feed into the company’s future mobility strategy.

With a test car parked just outside TAB HQ, we took to London’s roads early and often - with users, and within the product team. It meant we could literally test changes we made to the app in the city, within minutes of deploying it. Because of this, we were able to rapidly iterate on product versions, take on more customer feedback, and refine the product at speed.

At one point, we were asked to validate the idea of whether on-street pick-up and drop-off was an attractive proposition for drivers. Before and typically, pick-up hubs are often fixed locations - such as parking lots and train stations. Restricting the location to a single London borough as a control group, we used the existing app to create ‘virtual’ hubs that directed drivers to a section of the street they could park in.

We collected actionable learnings within a matter of days - not months - which helped to shape a full on-street update. These virtual hubs went on to account for around 40% of all pick-ups and drop-offs by the end of the experiment.

London is our lab traffic

How to best navigate an increasingly complex ecosystem

London’s mobility network extends well beyond the city, with millions of people commuting in and out daily. Often they have to juggle multiple itineraries and ticket types with information from websites, departure boards, and station staff. Mobile clearly has the potential to enable better, multi-modal journeys. The big question is how to reduce all of the complexity, whilst still offering a compelling user experience.

For a major UK rail company, we are currently addressing these commuter pain points with a completely new type of transport app. Currently in Beta testing, it will be the first in the UK that lets you plan a journey through multiple operators - as well as buy each component ticket needed for that journey.

The Beta test group of commuters has enabled us to rapidly test each interaction of the app, and uncover hidden nuances behind people’s travel habits. For example, we found people expect their entire combined journey to be shown on a map view. This left users feeling reassured, knowing they were travelling in the right direction.

Users also wanted to quickly see the different parts of their journey. To allow for this within a single glance, we broke down each leg of the journey into a separate colour - a simple adjustment that makes a big difference. However, for one bus journey leg, we used a light grey icon - made sense to us, but out in the real world, users interpreted as ‘out of service.’ This is a prime example of subtle nuance, and sweating the detail - a problem easily fixed, but which we may not have noticed without contextual feedback.

London Liverpool Street Train Station

Recap

Our experience in London’s mobility sector has taught us just how complex an ecosystem a city is.

To make products and services that really work for that city, you have to be prepared to interact head on - in the wild. Leave the lab, leave the office and be prepared to observe, talk and engage the people who live, breathe and move inside it everyday. You need to be prepared to stand in the rain, go underground, catch buses, hail cabs, and listen to the wealth of experience and knowledge from frontline staff.

The last seven years of our work in mobility across London has taught us a range of unexpected, subtle lessons that we value highly. We think of London (and the wider world), as our innovation lab - not TAB HQ. In so doing, not only have we developed deep insight into the city itself, but like any good field scientist, we have also developed the tools and processes that help us capture data and learnings in the wild.

If you want to learn more about our work across London, view some of our products here, or alternatively, send us an email.