How I joined an activism group and actually started designing things
I feel like I’ve properly got the ball rolling with my project now and I’ve reached a good momentum with the work. I’ve worked throughout this weekend, and having put in good hours last week, I’m feeling more and more confident with my project
I never considered bringing in the festive season of Halloween with a group of costume-clad cycling activists in Glasgow, but design research is not like other research. Last Friday, I took part in a cycle around Glasgow with a bunch of strangers to learn more about an event named Critical Mass. The event in question started 24 years ago, on the last Friday of September, 1992 in San Francisco. It was a response to the death of a cyclist on the city’s streets, and has since spread throughout the world to cities such as Taipei, Sofia, Green Bay and Berlin. Meeting in George Square, I managed to borrow a bike from one of Glasgow’s rental stops close by, and off we started, beginning with a few laps around the towering statue of Sir Walter Scott that lies on the square.
The sight was one to behold. 30-odd cyclists flying around the statue, draped in Halloween costume, with ‘Bicycle Race’ by Queen blaring from an onlooker’s phone. After we finished our laps, we proceeded down George Street, around the east of Glasgow and then south, and then up again through the city centre. Robert, the man I originally contacted, was very hospitable, and showed a great deal of interest in my project. Like some other members of the group he had a very anti-car attitude, which was summarised as we discussed what kind of product I could design for urban cyclists, with him suggesting something that could disable cars, leaving the streets vehicle free.
The tension between automobile and bicycle continued throughout the night. Due to the pure size of the group, we would end up blocking some cars off when we found ourselves at a red light. The disorganisation of the route did not help — according to Robert, this was an intentional facet of the event, as if there was an organised route then it would be counted as an illegal event and the organisers could face prosecution. I remember the worst exchange between bike and bus taking place around the back of the St Enoch shopping centre where on a one way street, cyclists surrounded a double-decker on both sides to the dismay of the driver. His window rolled down, and a Grim Reaper on a Raleigh raced up to meet him for an exchange of dog’s abuse.
I understand why this kind of forcefulness needs to take place. Attitudes towards cyclists are often quite negative, especially on the part of the car driver, and bikers do indeed need to fight back for their deserved space on the road. Critical Mass is about the cyclist’s fight for Glasgow’s streets, however, as a car driver as well, I can see the argument from both sides of the story. The road does not belong to either party, in fact it should be shared equally. As Enrique Penalosa, ex-mayor of Bogota, Colombia so wisely said, “a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car”. I feel that this quote justly represents my viewpoint on the situation. The road doesn’t belong to anybody, it is a shared privilege that everyone should be allowed to use. Whilst I cannot change preconceptions about this long fought argument, I do believe my ethos and viewpoint will have its own part to play as my project continues.
“A citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car”, Enrique Penalosa
Robert (and Eilidh, another organiser of Critical Mass) have agreed to keep in touch in future weeks to come, and I look forward to speaking to them as I can speak to them as both participants and experts on the subject. From Critical Mass, I learned about the strong cycling community present within Glasgow, but also about the experience of being a commuter and the perceptions of them as well. However, I was still keen on learning more from a wide range of people, but I didn’t know where to look, or even how. Thankfully, on the train home, I had a bright idea.
I’d noticed a couple of days before that Deliveroo, the food delivery service, had set up shop in Dundee, and in order to find delivery cyclists to shuttle their food around for them, they had started attaching leaflets to the bikes locked up around the University. This gave me two ideas. First of all was to contact Deliveroo and try speak to their cyclists. I phoned up their helpline to rattle off my rehearsed “I’m a student conducting research” speech, only for a woman on the other end of the phone to abruptly hang up on me. How rude. I was not discouraged however, and found out the communal Deliveroo gathering spot on the Perth Road, where their cyclists stop to chill out and have a post delivery break. I cycled down and told them what was happening, what I wanted to achieve, and what they could afford to win (a tantalising £20 Amazon voucher, wowww!) and a few of them seemed keen. They even said they’d post on their communal Deliveroo Facebook group to canvas more volunteers, with one already getting back to me. All going well so far!
My second (and much better) idea was inspired directly by the flyers. Why was I looking for communities and clubs, when I could just talk to the cyclists directly? Obviously I don’t want to wait outside a bike shelter and accost cyclists — that is both time consuming and to some, a bit creepy. Instead, I decided that I would create a collection of flyers which I could display on people’s bikes – Deliveroo style – and hopefully pull in participants.
I decided it wasn’t enough to simply write out a note and stick it on to people’s bikes. If it was me receiving it, I’d simply look at the note and launch it in the bin, giving it no second thought. I wanted a bit of wow factor, which would catch the eye of the curious onlooker and capture their interest. For my wow factor, it was important to summarise the soul of the project and represent it in some fashion. I didn’t want an abstract, “cool” image that is not relevant to the research that I was undertaking. It had to fit and make sense. I began to brainstorm, and had a few visuals that I wanted to make use of, such as the Discovery and the V&A which could symbolise the influence that the city of Dundee would have on my project.
My two favourite ideas however, were images of the Dundee Law and Desperate Dan. I was keen on the Law as it is a constant symbol of Dundee that people — especially students — are well acquainted with. After all, the Law is more often than not visible where ever you are within Dundee, and as I was most likely reaching out to the vast student populous of Dundee, I wanted an image that was a point of interest for my users. As it is a popular visiting spot and cliched Instagram upload for undergraduates, I decided it was recognisable enough, and one that many could relate to. Also, it would conveniently frame my simplistic flyers, looking good from a graphic design perspective. Despite these positives, I decided to opt for Desperate Dan instead, mainly because its a more interesting image. It has personality, it is an interesting challenge to draw, and it combines the ideas of Dundee and cycling into one neat image. I was excited to actually start designing something to good effect, rather than trawling through research for a further month and a half.
In my efforts to draw Desperate Dan, my Halloween weekend was spent sitting in front of the TV half watching the Shining, Black Mirror, and scariest of all, Finding Nemo, half drawing Desperate Dan on Illustrator. I was really keen on using the famous statue of Desperate Dan and putting him on a bike, but when I saw the image on paper, I decided to add a bit of colour to my urban cyclist, mainly because of the fact that the greys of the statue didn’t really fit with the white background, but also because the image of the statue felt a bit abstracted and vague for my liking. Once the image was done, I printed it off with a short description (including the £20 Amazon incentive) on the reverse and laminated it. With string to attach it to the bike handles, I had 76 cycling Dans to spread around Dundee.
I spent an hour of Tuesday afternoon handing out my flyers, attaching them to bikes everywhere between the University campus, Perth Road, the DCA, the Overgate and Abertay University. I managed to hand out all 76 in the one day and am considering handing out even more — it was easier than I expected it to be! I decided to have a relatively large sprawl for my hand outs, as I did not want to just receive an undergraduate perspective from my interviews. Already I have been in touch with staff, postgraduate students, and even people who are not affiliated with the University. This is vital for me to develop a wide understanding of the needs and painpoints of my potential user, and to understand how different people respond to what I am asking or proposing. Saying that, it is indeed important to strike the right balance and to find a good group of students to speak to, considering that Dundee is a very student oriented city.
From all of my efforts after a day of canvasing, I have amassed 19 participants to speak to. I am looking to sitting people down and listening first hand to what they have to say, and I expect a varied degree of insights and findings from this round of discussion. I hope to find common themes present with each individual cyclist, with which I can take forward and begin to focus down and highlight the real problems for these people. With greater consideration in the near future, I hope to convince some of my participants — most likely a carefully selected few — to continue on with the process, possibly giving them cultural probes and completing other research methods with them. I feel this is vital, mostly because I won’t even brush the surface of the problem with one round of interviewing, but as well I will develop a close relationship with my users, understanding the problem more coherently from their point of view. I also want to get wired in and attempt some varied research methods, purely for the fun of it!
On top of all this participant finding, our class had Guru’s Day yesterday. Guru’s Day is an event for a number of design professionals to come to our class and speak to us for a quick one on one, learning about our project and giving us some first rate advice on how to take it forward. For the most part, many of the Guru’s I spoke to agreed with me that I had to nail down the problem, and seeing my Desperate Dan flyers, they acknowledged that I had started on the right track to doing that. Yet some of them had some great advice that I will definitely take forward with my project.
James Williams, a designer with Glasdon who specialise in street furniture, warned me for my project to not turn out to be gimmicky. He didn’t believe that I was going down the route of a cheap gimmick, but due to my focus on the city as a platform for the convergence of technology and cycling, he worried that I could try too hard to try and make the two meet when not appropriate. The purpose of my extensive face-to-face research with real participants is a conscious attempt to do this, however it’s good to hear from someone such as James how I can attempt to nullify that through the use of my design. It’s all about keeping my options open, and not specifically having one product that I want to design in mind. Luckily, I have had experience working within the digital industry, so my open mindedness about the outcome of my project can be backed up by the skills I have learned in my experience. I need to be flexible in my design process, and not having a concept even a month and a half down the line is not really a bad thing — if anything, it’s great.
Rich, who I’ve spoken to for a previous project with Made by Many before was at the event, and he told me about a similar project completed by a student, Joanna Stronska, a year before in his Honours class. Joanna’s project was about identifying dangerous roads in the local area using Internet of Things technology, and allowed cyclists to mark cautions to other users of the service by pressing a button on the handlebars of a bicycle. This sense of community and problem solving via emerging technologies is the kind of project that I’m trying to pull off. Not only does it take an issue and solve it in an innovative way, but it goes to show how diverse the actual product and the form in which it comes can be adapted for the situation, which has given me a lot to think about off the back of the conversation I had with James.
I spoke to Mike McKenna too, a UX Designer with eeGeo. eeGeo design virtual maps that allow greater engagement with people and their environments by developing a lifelike version of certain surroundings. It was interesting to speak to him as someone involved in a more city-oriented aspect of my research, but what he told me had nothing to do with the urban environment. Instead, it was about the participant interviews that I was beginning to undertake, and how I could attract people to follow my project further. He warned me about only conducting one interview with people, and trying to maintain a strong feedback loop between myself and my participants over the course of the year, something that I was wary of myself. When I asked more about it, he told me to try keep on between 4–6 people for more detailed insights, an ideal number to maintain a small community with. Even more interestingly, he spoke about how there is an “art” to keeping these people on, making them feel that the project is in their own hands. I found it both useful and funny advice — I couldn’t imagine acting so sneakily with my politely willing volunteers, but alas, I need to be wary and try and convince my participants to remain in contact in future.
All these insights were very useful, and I was glad to see that I was going on the right path, with some added insights to help influence what I am doing. Guru’s Day was a great success, with many more leads, resources, people and events to follow up on in the weeks to come. Next up, I have Copenhagen, where I’ll take in the infrastructure and see how urban cycling is really done. I’m hoping to speak to some people whilst I’m there and make some contacts, whom I can speak to along with my group of Dundonian participants. Then, on Monday and Tuesday I have the Cycling Scotland Conference, where I’ll embark on a bike ride around Dundee to learn more about cycling in the context of Dundee itself — an extremely useful event to be attending. The day after I will hear from speakers such as Mark Beaumont and Humza Yousaf in my hometown of Perth at the Concert Hall. The day after that I have 3 participant interviews, for lunch, late lunch and dinner, Thursday, I have another 2. It really is starting to become non-stop, but it’s a feeling that is quite exciting. Things are beginning to happen, and despite being busy a lot of the time, it’s a very fulfilling feeling knowing that I’ll quickly arrive at an idea to move forward with! For now however, I’m off to Copenhagen!
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