How can visual communication enhance road safety? What impact does personalised communication have on attitudes of different road users, and can it help cyclists and drivers understand each other’s perspective? These are the questions I tackled in my Master of Design research project, which combined academic research with the design of a practical response to a need.
The need to connect road users
When cyclists and drivers share the road, the experience can result in conflict that affects the lives of all involved. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable, being at higher risk of death or injury. Negative, dehumanising attitudes towards cyclists can lead to aggressive behaviours on the road. To address such problems, how can we help different road users see each other as fellow human beings?
To enhance safety, the attitudes of all road users (including cyclists) need to improve. Following a human-centred design-based research process, my project investigated how to develop better understanding between road users, using visual communication techniques.
Clarifying the need
After conducting a thorough literature review and running two focus groups with drivers/cyclists, I recorded a number of insights.
- Attitudes of road users are shaped by a number of factors: media coverage, education, peer pressure, personal experience, road infrastructure, culture and social norms
- Using multiple modes of travel increases positive attitudes, so building empathy between road users could decrease conflict
- Role-based labelling such as “driver” or “cyclist” may limit communication effectiveness and reinforce stereotypes
- Relating road users to their human context (part of a family rather than part of a car/bicycle) could help connect and humanise them
If you’re interested in the research behind these insights, you can see a simple thematic analysis of the main points I identified through the literature review and focus group research, or view a one-page project summary. My Masters dissertation goes into much more detail (while aiming to be accessible by non-academics as well as researchers), so if you genuinely want to know more about the research process and findings I may be able to give you access to the full report, on request.
Designing a response to the need
As a result of focus group research, I decided to create an interactive story as a way to connect different road users. An interactive story is a narrative that allows the reader to determine the plot direction by making decisions at key points. People’s path through the story, and the ultimate outcome, depends on the decisions they make along the way.
For this project, the story was based on the idea of going on a simple journey, being part of a family, and seeing things through others’ eyes. Non-cyclists experience the journey as a cyclist, and vice versa. Their decisions along the way lead to different experiences and consequences (rather than right/wrong choices). By asking people which activities they do regularly as an individual (like riding a bicycle or driving a car) the story avoids labelling them as a driver or cyclist.
The narrative is designed to help people think about actions and consequences, rather than teaching road rules or making judgements of how people behave. It uses simple, everyday language and images to illustrate typical situations people may encounter on the road. The scenarios were developed in response to themes uncovered from the research.
Some screenshots from the interactive story
This interactive story concept was prototyped using an online platform (Typeform) and personalised based on road user role/s. To test individualised versus group personalisation, a second version was built and personalised with user information such as name and location, and participants were directed to one of the two versions at random. The prototype story you can try now is the more personalised version and does not link to the feedback survey.
Typeform is a tool usually used for surveys and data collection, but its ability to direct users to different screens in response to their answers provided a great way to build an interactive story and connect that to a feedback survey. It also meant the concept could be prototyped in just two or three weeks, without requiring dedicated software or programming skills. Being built to work on a wide range of devices, people could use it on mobile phones, tablets or computers, which was another advantage.
The story was designed to be used by anyone anywhere (requiring no special knowledge or equipment) and took no more than 3-5 minutes to complete. As a prototype, it tested proof of concept rather than being designed as a finished product, although it aimed to be as engaging as possible by using realistic imagery, personalised scenarios and options to go back and see the impact of different decisions. To visualise all the possible routes through the story so they could be adapted in future, I also created a detailed logic map.
Responses to the interactive story
The use of interactive stories for educational purposes is relatively new, but feedback from users who tested the prototype story for this project indicated people were receptive to the idea. The survey results showed both cyclists and non-cyclists/drivers found the story easy and enjoyable to use, and over a quarter of respondents said it had changed their attitudes to other road users. Others said it had reinforced their understanding, or they had learned something new. This feedback is encouraging, given the prototype was fairly limited in scope, with mostly static imagery and simple scenarios.
”It made me consider what other people think when they see cyclists on the road”
“…reinforced my awareness of how cars and bikes are able to interact safely”
“It made me think about road conditions that cyclists need to deal with that may not be obvious for a driver”
“It did make me go check the laws”
“I was not aware of ‘dooring’”
Respondents made various suggestions to improve the prototype regarding story scenarios and decision points, such as including other travel modes and road situations, or providing more nuanced choices.
Interactive stories have potential to change attitudes if personalised around the perspectives of groups like cyclists or drivers. Many people reported they had learned about issues facing other road users, or said the story had reinforced their awareness of road safety issues, rules and behaviours.
Further development of the story could include scenarios for other modes of road travel, such as riding a motorcycle, walking, riding a scooter, or catching a bus, as suggested by various survey respondents. Such development could also look at honing the prototype further to make the experience more immersive, introduce more flexible choices, increase its visual sophistication, or test other personalisation techniques.
The research findings could be of potential value to road safety authorities and researchers. There was unanimous support for education that improves understanding of cyclists and vulnerable road users to be part of driver training (which supports the work being done by CycleAware researchers in Australia). The need to train cyclists as well as drivers also emerged as an area for further research.
In addition, the study could encourage educators and communication designers to create interactive stories for educational purposes. Using simple online tools like Typeform for multimedia storytelling could be investigated further. If you’d like me to write a post about how to develop an interactive story using Typeform, or would like to read my full research report, just get in touch or add a comment below!