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In The User’s Shoes

One of the key stages of user-centered design is the observation of the interaction between the user and the product or service. Although, in these cases, it is important for the designer to adopt a detached and objective attitude, in this article we will see a real example of how to walk “in the user’s shoes” can offer a rich perspective.

(At the end of this article you’ll find a video with the conclusions.)

This summer I traveled to Girona (Catalonia, Spain). To get there, I decided to make the trip by train from the Sants Train Station, in Barcelona. What I did not realize was that that trip would become a practice design test.

Stage 1. The user

I arrived at the Sants Train Station in advance in order to buy the ticket. The first question that arose was where did I have to buy the ticket? At the train station there were two points for ticket office, as indicated on the plan as A and B. On B there was a sign that said “Long distance” and on A there was another sign that said “Medium distance”. Girona was considered long or middle distance?

I first went to the ticket office B, but seeing that on the arrivals board Girona didn’t appeared, I suspected that this was not the right place. So I continued walking until the medium distance ticket office (A).

In front of A there were long queues. If I waited my turn, I possibly would lose the train. I had seen self-ticketing machines in the train station, but I had not paid attention to them. Not being familiar with those machines I preferred the ticket office, where a person could help me. However, there was no time, so I went to the machines.

In the train station there were two types of self-ticketing machines, some of them were gray-colored and some others were lilacs. I tried first with the gray ones, but Girona did not appear on the screen. In the lilac machines I could find the trains to Girona, but not the one I was looking for.

I went back to the ticket office and I saw an Information Point (3). There the staff member advised me to go to the lilacs self-ticketing machines Y. Unlike all other machines, the Y machines had long queues. The reason was simple. There were two staff members helping users to buy tickets.

I decided to go back to the ticket office queues, where I finally got to buy the ticket in time to catch the train.

Once on the train, I began to mentally review what had happened in the train station and this led me to make a decision. I would return to the train station another day, but this time as an observer.

Step 2. The Observer

Arriving at the Sants Train Station, the first thing I noticed was that the train station entrances had no points of information but stores. This leaved users facing a large open space, without any guidance.

Major train stations are a great challenge for designers. Unlike the subway, train stations usually do not have passageways with signs through which guide the passengers. The most common solution in these cases are the hanging signs as those shown in the following illustration.

The hanging signs of the Sants Train Station are used to indicate the platforms, but this is a minor issue when the user does not know where to buy the tickets.

Since “long and medium distance” means nothing to the users, how could they know which is the correct ticket office, A or B? Reviewing my own adventure at the train station, I remembered that I had ruled out B because on the arrivals board Girona did not appear. What really guides the new users are the stations.

In the Sants Train Station, users are guided by the arrivals boards. If they see that a train arrives from their destination, they conclude that there is where they can buy the ticket. Unfortunately, this is not the goal of the boards, so it ends up being an unreliable indicator. It would be much more useful to show the lines with their stations.

After a few laps around the station I decided to leave. Since I did not want to use the subway, I thought it would be much nicer to walk back. I knew that the train station was close from a square, but I did not know which direction the square was. I looked for a city map to locate the train station but I found none. Fortunately, there was a bus stop before the train station with a map of the city.


During those two days, I took two roles, the user and the observer. As an observer, I was more receptive to a wide variety of items, but I overlooked important details that were not planned or I had not believed they were relevant.

As a user, I only was receptive to items that directly concerned me and everything else disappeared. However, as a user I could detect serious weaknesses that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, as that of the map.

The combination of the user and the observer roles can provide a global overview to the researcher. The two roles, in isolation, proved to have limitations, but each of them allowed me to identify different elements that woukd have gone undetected in the case I had limited my analysis to a single perspective.

I leave you this hand-made video explaining my conclusions. I hope you’ll enjoy it!


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