Researcher Reflections on the Participatory Design Process

As a research team, we perceived a high level of engagement from stakeholders in the initial design workshop and considered a number of the ideas that emerged to be innovative. However, discussions in the design refinement workshop emphasised the wider constraints on innovation in rail level crossing design. While reviewing the potential design refinements that were intended to improve alignment with sociotechnical systems theory and systems thinking generally, attendee feedback was appreciably more conservative and the majority of the refinements were rejected.

The concerns raised fell generally around the following themes:

  • Standards and regulations: The need to change standards to accommodate new designs was seen as a barrier, as were concerns about compliance with legislation. For example, the road rules would need to be updated to refer to new types of warning devices.
  • Government policy: Some existing policies in road design were discussed in relation to a number of refinements, including the need to avoid distracting drivers with information not directly relevant to the immediate driving task, and ensuring that regulatory signs (e.g. speed signs) are not implemented where they will not be seen as credible (thus encouraging violations).
  • Cost: Attendees were particularly concerned about the cost of potential designs given the importance of cost-benefit considerations for decision makers. They noted that cost-benefit analyses would need to be calculated to enable comparison between concepts.
  • Organisational, social and political considerations: A range of other organisational, social and political issues were also raised, for example, how acceptable the designs would be to the wider community.

In general, refinements based on sociotechnical systems theory were seen as peripheral and unnecessary, suggesting that current design decisions are based on normative assumptions. That is, the focus appeared to be on tasks in isolation (i.e. ‘can you see the rail level crossing sign without being distracted?’) rather than more holistic considerations, such as ensuring road users understand how rail level crossing function and what functional purposes are trying to be achieved.

Feedback at the design refinement workshop also highlighted the tension between the aims of academic research and the needs of industry in partnering with research organisations. In the present research programme, the research team were focussed on developing new designs via a novel approach that was theoretically underpinned by sociotechnical systems theory and systems thinking. Conversely, for the project stakeholders, the goal was to develop options that can be practically implemented given the constraints under which they work. This meant that revolutionary elements of the design concepts often had to be modified to make them more practical. Although the participatory process intended to manage the balance between these goals and find solutions that could achieve both, in practice this was difficult to achieve. A key requirement for the human factors discipline generally lies in developing approaches that can effectively balance the goals and needs of research and industry.

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