The smart railway; a new kind of user journey

How research and user-centred design can positively impact the performance and customer experience on our rail network.

Resonate (formally DeltaRail) is a technology company specialising in digital rail and connected transport solutions. They are known for building leading signalling control software and intelligent traffic management systems that enable trains to move safely and efficiently through the UK rail network.

In 2016, Resonate commissioned a new and revolutionary digital platform, 'Luminate'. The Luminate suite of products would provide real-time route control, using advanced planning models and predictive analytics, with the overall aim of introducing operational efficiencies, reducing costs and improving the performance of the rail network.

Resonate rapidly scaled up its internal software development team to meet the demands of a large scale project and engaged Black Pepper to provide UX expertise, specifically user-centred research and design.

Our objectives

  • Develop a research strategy to cultivate a shared understanding of the needs of all user types and stakeholders.
  • Run field studies, interviews and usability tests.
  • Facilitate design sprints to rapidly prototype and test new ideas
  • Design a unique, dynamic user interface to provide clear visibility of critical information
  • Architect a new design system and component library
  • Provide mentorship and training to staff already in the business who want to transition from other roles into a career in UX

Getting started

As with any project, it is essential to gain a thorough understanding of the complex domain and its users. In this case, train timetable planning and management and how planners and signallers work together and communicate. Black Pepper set up a series of discovery workshops with end-users and key stakeholders to understand their needs for the new system, as well as identify the pain points that are common in their existing ways of working.

The Black Pepper team observed that many of the processes involved in the day to day running of the railways were manual and outdated. For example, each day, planners would print a spreadsheet containing current timetable information. They would use the printout to scribble down minute by minute changes, which would result in a forecasted schedule that was messy and difficult to read.

Planners informed signallers of changes via email. Not only was this an inefficient way of working, but it also had an impact on the performance of the network, resulting in frustration for passengers and financial penalties for train operators.

Simplifier
A printed timetable simplifier, showing how planners react to timetable changes

Chris McCourt, Head of UX at Black Pepper, talks about one approach used to understand and solve problems using user-centred design methods:

Enabling behaviour change

“One interesting thing we found during research was that a large number of planners had 20+ years of experience in the job, and many were nearing retirement. It became apparent that the existing way of working required extensive knowledge of the rail network, and it could take many months or even years to train recruits in this antiquated system. Would planners be willing to move to a new way of working? How could we facilitate this change in behaviour?”

Design sprints

“A design sprint is a way of brainstorming solutions to business problems in a fixed time frame using design methods. Designers, users and stakeholders collaborate to produce ideas visually through sketching. The result is a user-tested prototype that gives a project team actionable insights, enabling them to commit (or not) to future work.

Using the information gathered from field studies and interviews, we set about answering some key questions using design sprints. Questions such as:

  • How could we convince experienced planners to move to a new digital system?
  • How could we enable the transfer of knowledge, so that people new to planning could get up to speed much more quickly?”

“Once we'd properly defined the problems users faced and sketched some viable solutions, we used a dot voting system to agree which of the new ideas we should prototype and test. To validate our designs, we set up usability tests for each prototype, where planners could act out the daily challenges they face. We iterated over this, making changes where necessary based on what we learned.

One significant benefit of design sprints is the increased knowledge and confidence that rapid prototyping and testing instils in your product team. This added assurance is vital in the decision-making process and makes a commitment to development far less risky.

The concluding phase of our engagement with Resonate involved translating all of the learning and outputs we had gathered into professional user interface designs.”

Platform docker
The new digital interface, showing platform occupation across a configurable timeline. Colour is used to convey meaning, particularly where issues arise. Operators are able to see in real-time, how any changes affect KPIs.

Throughout the engagement with Resonate, Black Pepper provided coaching to the Resonate team members with an ambition to follow a career in UX. This team is now continuing the work Black Pepper started by establishing a design culture within the organisation and taking ownership of the new design system. Black Pepper achieved this by running training sessions, paring up on design tasks and working together to create a professional development framework for aspiring UX designers.

We needed to engage with a company with an expert UX team who could quickly get to grips with our product’s end-user environment and work with our in-house team to agree and create a framework for UX consistency – something Black Pepper did seamlessly.

Tim Clifford
Digital Sales & Marketing Director, Resonate

Outcome

Black Pepper completed this short 30-day engagement, leaving Resonate with a strategy and a toolset for practising user-centred design and design-led development independently. Black Pepper delivered a modern, scalable user interface design, as well as the foundations of a design system and component library.


The Luminate Traffic Management System is live on the Great Western Mainline. It is forecasting train movements, identifying conflicts and re-planning train schedules, as well as enabling changes to platform occupation. On its first day of operation, trained operators successfully implemented over 300 interventions.

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