Photography & video — Vilja Pursiainen
Text — Kristiina Markkanen

Hearing the Users’ Voice in Public Investment: Helsinki’s City Bikes

 

City bikes give a speed boost to Helsinki’s public transport. For the cycling experience to be as smooth as possible, test users’ opinions of the bikes were taken into account in the final investment decision.

 

On an October day, something unusual is happening at Roihupelto’s metro depot. Train equipment awaiting repairs has been replaced with traffic signs, plywood hills and bumps, and instead of workers the depot is bustling with the city’s inhabitants. They have come to test-drive Helsinki’s new city bikes. It is the city’s first public investment where user experience is an important quality requirement.

Helsinki’s previous bicycle-sharing system was discarded because it did not work as it was supposed to. The bikes were uncomfortable to drive and were vandalised a lot. Bikes could be found in ditches and curbs, often smashed into pieces. With the new system, the city wanted to avoid these problems.

Since May Day, downtown Helsinki has had five hundred brand new shared-use bikes available for use. There are fifty stations to begin with. Helsinki citizens received the yellow bicycles with appropriate enthusiasm: over 15 000 people rode them during the first week. HSL released an official route planner to go with the new system, but there are several other mobile applications that help users keep track of available bikes.

The bicycle-sharing system was put out to tender already in early 2015. When tens of businesses offering bikes had been narrowed down to three finalists and the final investment decision was looming ahead, the main part of the service was included in making the decision: its users.

“The user-friendliness of the bikes is the central aspect. The user experience has to be fluid and simple, otherwise the bikes will remain unused,” says HKL’s project engineer Samuli Mäkinen.

 

Therefore the finalist bikes had to fulfil certain technical requirements. The bikes have to suit different aged and sized users, and they have to have three gears and good breaks. Because the bikes will become a part of HSL’s public transport system, they must be operable with a travel card. It is easy to write features down on paper, but it does not yet guarantee an optimal user experience.

Mäkinen reminds that the city bike project is an extensive and tendered out public investment, and the user interface or the bikes cannot be developed further afterwards if they do not meet expectations.

“We wanted to find out as early as possible whether we had to demand something from the manufacturers that we had not yet received. We had to ask what the users want from bikes in a real testing environment,” Mäkinen says.

Scoring user experience

The test track organised at the depot contained a diverse range of different experiences. How do you drive with a shopping bag, do you put it in the basket or hang it from the handlebar? How easy is it to temporarily lock the bike while getting a coffee? So that the users’ needs would remain as the priority, outside expert LINK Design and Development answered for the usability assessment.

Using a test form, the test group rated taking the bike into use, the cycling experience and the returning of the bike. Normally interviews, for example, are conducted in connection with user ratings but now the form was the only measure. Because there was no interaction between experts and testers, the importance of the test form was heightened. That made LINK Design and Development’s Piritta Winqvist nervous.

“We conducted a pilot test of the track and the form, to insure that the form truly covers all the experiences encountered on the track. It was interesting how and with what devoutness this particular test group answers the questions. Cycling involves a lot of aspects of getting accustomed, which can influence how people score their experience. Some might take a liking to a certain bike just because of its appearance.”

 

The testers scored their experience on a scale of one to five. The greatest weighting was on the bike’s usability and the smallest on returning it. Lastly, the total points were tabulated for the official investment decision. The weight of the user ratings in the final investment decision was a fair ten per cent.

According to Winqvist it was unprecedented that the users’ opinions and wishes were taken into account in such a concrete way in the city’s investment.

“The user ratings had a delightfully heavy weight in the final investment decision. The chosen bike also happened to be just the one that the test users liked the most,” Windqvist reveals.

2016

Key lesson: Extensive public investments are difficult and costly to develop further later on. Therefore it is relevant to find out early from the users themselves what services they want, and which provider’s option best fulfils their needs. The costs and benefits of a service are mapped with the help of a concrete testing environment.


Read on

Article:

Design thinking isn’t just about creating better products and services; it can be used to make entire cities better. Design enables cities to make changes that both save money and hit their target, say strategic designer Marco Steinberg and Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, Secretary General of the International Design Foundation.

The next big change in design

Article:

Using public services in a smart city is simple and even pleasant, say Jaakko Salavuo, Director of Information Technology and Communications and Santtu von Bruun, Head of the Competitiveness and international relations unit at the City of Helsinki.

Smart Cities

Article:

User-centered design helps create services that citizens actually need, say Turkka Keinonen, Professor of Design at Aalto University and Päivi Sutinen, Service Development Director of Espoo.

User-centered design

Article:

Helsinki is known around the world for its design thinking that reaches throughout the city, all the way to its leadership. According to Design Foundation Finland’s Jorma Lehtonen, it's thanks to education – but we still need a lot more.

Helsinki and design thinking

Article:

Participatory design is most productive when other groups in addition to the end users are also involved. Then it becomes co-design, say innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University.

From participatory design to co-design

Article:

Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.

Tendering for design