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Human factors team in front of a Mott MacDonald branded background

Putting people at the heart of our solutions

When we were asked to write a blog talking about our human factors and behavioural insights team, we hesitated. Why?

As an engineering consultancy, we design a whole host of different types of buildings and environments. Whether they are railway stations, airports, hospitals or street environments, they are all places that are used by people going about their every day and/or working lives.

Simply because what we do covers such a wide range of things. And, to be honest, we struggle to describe what we do succinctly! We have a 600 word limit so here we go…

Our team apply science-based information, underpinned by psychology, physiology and design, to any context where people interact with objects, places or other people. We bring our knowledge of what people think and do and apply this to provide user-centred solutions to our clients' problems.

So what does it mean in practical terms? Well it might be easier to describe some of work the team has been involved in recently.

What we have been up to

Have you ever seen a major international airport get evacuated from inside its control room? Have you witnessed riots unfold from behind the scenes in an operations centre? Have you seen railway signallers deal with deer crossing the tracks while trying to maintain the train service? Well, we have been fortunate to have witnessed all of these in our job. When designing control rooms, we immerse ourselves in the context in which people will work. If we are redesigning an existing control room. this can mean spending time observing and talking to staff to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, how they are doing it and the cultures of their workplaces. When designing control rooms from scratch, we tend to work a little differently. Currently we are working for a major new UK railway and we have had to develop concepts to inform the size, staffing levels, architecture, lighting, acoustics, room layout, desk designs, design and usability of control systems.

As well as working behind the scenes, we also get involved in the design of public spaces. From tourists who are confused due to poor signage, to your daily commuter who struggles to walk from A to B because other people’s paths are crossing theirs, taking user-centred perspective in the design process could avoid this. We have spent many an hour immersed in all sorts of public places (sometimes donning our raincoats) looking at the ways that design influences how people move around and how people occupy spaces. Recently, we used this observational information to influence the redesign and layout of a town centre tram stop, making the space intuitive to navigate so that people could physically get where they need to go and generally making it a public space where people want to be.

However, it’s no good providing the best new buildings, infrastructure or public spaces if people aren’t using them. We’ve all seen situations where new facilities have been provided but people aren’t making use of them for all sorts of reasons. More and more, we are being asked to help our clients to encourage people to change their behaviours to improve their health or for the benefit of the environment. In order to help do this, we need to really understand in depth why they behave in the way that they do and what is stopping them from changing their behaviours. We’ve done this in all sorts of places including hospitals and railway stations, we’ve even joined some walking groups to gather insights! With this information, we suggest ways to make it easier for people to do something different. Often, the hardcore engineering has already been done but softer solutions such as marketing or education are needed alongside this to engage people.

Often the places that we help design will have technologies installed in them, anything from a safety critical system installed in a control room, to a touch screen for the floor plan of a shopping centre. If you’re reading this, I’m sure at some point you will have experienced bad technology design, whether this is having difficulties with the self-checkouts at the supermarket or not knowing where to go to find the information that you are looking for on a website. Human factors and behavioural insights techniques help us to design these systems to be as usable as possible by gathering insights to understand what people need and how they would naturally carry out tasks and activities.

Our favourite project? When we got to drive around an international airport testing their car park ticket machines and barriers, playing with the technology to work out what is wrong with it, watching people using it and talking to them to understand their issues. Doing this helps us to fully understand the problems so that we can recommend solutions.

To conclude

So, what makes our jobs interesting? Well, no two days in our team are the same. We get to visit all sorts of interesting places, meet interesting people, see interesting things and use what we learn to make life easier and more enjoyable for people.

Oh, and remember that 600 word limit that we mentioned at the beginning of this blog? Well we blew it and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we do.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to find out more, head over to the human factors section of the website or get in touch with us at human.factors@mottmac.com.

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