Designing together

Over the last 5 months or so, the Making Connections project has been working through the following steps:

  • Bring people together to explore how we travel through connections and plan making a connection together

  • travel through connections from trains to ferries as a group, recording our experiences along the way

  • reflect on all the stories, comments and challenges from that shared experience

  • come back together and develop responses to some of the challenges - design together.

We reached the latest stage back in May when we brought participants from the Ardrossan and Aberdeen walk-throughs together with colleagues from transport operators, Transport Scotland, designers and others.

As a project team we had spent time considering the many challenges that participants had described during the walkthroughs - difficult environments, lack of information, noisy spaces, anxious road-crossings… and distilled them into themes and design challenges that we could tackle together.

It took a lot of discussion. We described the challenge areas we’d identified to each other and grouped them by when they might happen along the course of journey. Eventually, five key challenges emerged…

  1. How can we help decision makers understand the challenges that disabled people face?

  2. How can we give people more useful information before their journey?

  3. How can we make travel connections more visible, safer and easier to follow?

  4. How can we make help points more helpful for disabled people?

  5. If you could start again and design a transport network that works better for everyone, what would the connections look like?

These became the focus for our Design Event.

We invited all participants from Ardrossan and Aberdeen along with transport partners and other friends we’ve made along the way.

On the day, we described the project process and the challenges that we’d identified. Participants then chose a challenge that they wanted to work on and started to discuss possible solutions…

It was a great gathering with lots of energy and ideas. We’re currently in the middle of analysing what was create, discussed and proposed during the day.

We’ll be writing it all up and presenting ideas for taking on some of the challenges further.

In the meantime, we’ll be sharing some of this and reflecting on the process at our summary event in Edinburgh on 30th July - join us!

Ardrossan: travelling from train to terminal

Image: Sign pointing to rail station and ferry terminal

Image: Sign pointing to rail station and ferry terminal

After taking our journey together in Aberdeen and recording our experiences of making one train-to-boat connection, we were keen to move our work to the west coast, planning a second journey from the railway station at Ardrossan to the ferry terminal there.

We knew that we wouldn’t replicate our experience in Aberdeen; as well as the connection itself covering a smaller area, the two locations are very different – Aberdeen is a busy city, Ardrossan a quieter town – and while the ferry journey from Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland takes between six and thirteen hours, sailing from Ardrossan to Aran takes just one hour. It was important to us to see how well our methods of recording information worked in this new environment.

We incorporated things we felt had worked well on our first journey: working in groups formed of leaders, note-takers, participants, and representatives from transport organisations (ScotRail and CalMac in Ardrossan); using themed cards to show reactions to parts of the journey; bringing emergency Tunnocks wafers – with updated information packs.

Some of our participants had also attended the Aberdeen journey, while others were joining after participating in one of our workshops. On the day, we congregated on the train to listen to a pre-journey briefing and be sorted into our groups; my group included people who had visual impairments, physical impairments, and were living with dementia. Although the connection took less time to make than it had in Aberdeen, we had just as many notes to compare afterwards! Here’s a brief record of our group’s experience – just one snapshot of the day as a whole.

Image: It was a cold, wet day in Ardrossan!

Image: It was a cold, wet day in Ardrossan!

As we got off the train, the first feeling we noted was one of uncertainty – should we turn left or right? While maybe obvious to those familiar with the station, the rest of us were left confused, as there was no obvious signage. Moving from the train to the platform also involved a drop; a couple of passengers used a fairly steep ramp, reporting that they felt unbalanced. However, as we turned right, moving towards what we hoped was the way off the platform, the pathway was nice and wide, with a suitable surface.

Going along the platform, we approached a help point and a covered waiting area. We thought that both could be improved. The colour of the help-point could be changed to make it more visually obvious to people with impaired sight – it would be better in white rather than yellow. The seats in the covered waiting area received negative responses from the group – they were too low down, and made of cold metal which was uncomfortable. The space in general was very cold, and we all agreed it wasn’t a place you’d want to wait for long.

At this stage, we couldn’t see any visible signs directing us to the ferry, but we continued along the platform until we came to the exit – a gentle slope leading to a metal gateway, with a road on the other side. Although we realised that this area was, during certain times of day, a busy crossing area that traffic to and from the boat drove through, there was no signage warning or informing passengers of this. However, there was a line in front of the road, and a sign warning people not to cross ‘the line’ and trespass onto ScotRail property – all in all, a bit confusing! Unsure of what line the sign was talking about, we stepped over the one on the road. We thought that it would be helpful to have the crossing clearly marked, with a change of surfaces to ensure people with sight impairments were aware they were approaching a crossing area.

As we crossed the road, we saw something waiting on the other side – the boat! However, on closer inspection it turned out to be not our boat, but one in dock for repairs. Because it was directly opposite the ScotRail site and there was a lack of signage directing us to our actual next step, our instinct had been to head for it – a little confusing!

After realising that this boat wasn’t for us, we headed for the covered walkway that led us to the ferry terminal. As we went through the walkway, we appreciated that the covering protected us from the elements, and that the marking on the glass made it noticeable and helpful to people with dementia. However, we also thought the walkway area could feel a rather unwelcoming and exposed environment at night. We also thought it would be great to have a resting point halfway along, and a change of surface at the other end to signal a road crossing.

While there was signage at this stage, it we thought it could be larger and clearer to make them easier for people to read. The sign that looked most urgent was alerting people that they must buy tickets, rather than providing directions.

We left the walkway and crossed to where the ferry terminal was, entering through a heavy door – the other one was locked, causing issues for wheelchair users. Inside, we noticed a well-located customer help point. We struggled to hear announcements, which need to be a bit louder. Taking our notepads to the toilets, we were glad there was an accessible toilet, but thought it seemed more suited to families than disabled passengers, and noted that better signage in the ladies would also help navigation – particularly a Way Out sign on the door.

Participants discussing their experiences after walking from the rail station to the Ferry Terminal.

Participants discussing their experiences after walking from the rail station to the Ferry Terminal.

We paused for a cup of coffee in the terminal and a chat about how we’d found things so far, during which participants made a couple of crucial observations about the connection: firstly, better identification of the route would be really helpful, and could be done by clearly marking crossings with both white lines, and changes in surface materials. Secondly, while the connection uses numbers that seem designed to be read by people with visual impairments, Braille readers may not recognise a tactile number, as these are not usually taught. Similarly, arrows don’t translate – there needs to be words that spell out ‘Exit right’, or ‘Exit left’. This was something I had also been unaware of, and the observation seemed a perfect example of the importance of including disabled passengers in transport consultation and co-design.

Finishing on that positive note, we made our way back to the town centre to have lunch together and hold a brief group discussion about how we’d found the day and the journey. Chatting about our experiences soon developed into a conversation about the potential these kinds of projects have for bringing people with different disabilities together, as well as the practical ways we can collaborate and learn from each other.

The Making Connections team waiting to head home from Ardrossan

The Making Connections team waiting to head home from Ardrossan

I left full of inspiration, and excited for the next stage of the project, our design workshop on May 29th – more details here.

Aberdeen: taking the first journey together

Description: signage on the way to the ferry terminal

Description: signage on the way to the ferry terminal

Two workshops down and feeling ready to try our first Making Connections journey, Go Upstream headed to Aberdeen, where we met the rest of our group. After initially fearing that high winds might mean the outdoor part of our planned connection might need to be abandoned, the sun shone and we were glad to see all groups complete their journeys using the feedback materials to record lots about their experiences. The day was also a learning process for us - we picked up quite a bit about how our information-collecting methods could be improved and changed to better reflect the on-site reality of multitasking!

Before undertaking our journey, we met at Aberdeen train station for a briefing. Thanks to ScotRail we had exclusive use of the first-class lounge, and took the opportunity to grab some coffee and Orkney fudge as we introduced everyone, discussed the journey packs we’d be using to record our experiences, and made sure that all participants were aware of the plan for the day. Sorted into groups of between five and eight people, we then headed out to make our connection...

Our group put a slight focus on the particular challenges that someone who is Deaf and/or living with dementia might face when making the train-boat connection, so here is one account of our journey. It definitely doesn’t cover everything noted - we filled six pages! - but gives an idea of some issues found along the way.

Beginning our journey in the main concourse of the train station, we immediately hit a barrier due to the lack of immediate signage showing us where to go. On investigation, we found various different signs around the site, but there were some inconsistencies with presentation: different sizes and different fonts, sometimes too small.

Our group thought that it would be good to have more signage, including information on departing trains directly by where you board the trains, like at Glasgow Central station. It would also be easier to read if it was at a height closer to eye level. Although it wouldn’t help everyone, some members of the group raised the possibility of using different colours on signage to help people identify routes: for example red for boat, yellow for taxi. A similar system could also be used on the floor – helping guide people who need help with the use of different colours, as often used in hospitals.

We walked around the train station, struggling to find the lift - it could be better signposted. We noted steps in the station that could be a barrier for multiple reasons. There are contrasts in surface colour and texture which can cause problems for people with dementia.

Description: Recording our thoughts on floors, surfaces and surface changes that can create challenges for people with dementia and others.

Description: Recording our thoughts on floors, surfaces and surface changes that can create challenges for people with dementia and others.

We took a right turn out of the station, heading into the Union Square shopping centre.

There were several positive things we noted about the environment of the shopping centre – it was well-lit which made some members of the group feel safe, and there were places we could sit down.

Description: The group discusses and records their thoughts on signage

Description: The group discusses and records their thoughts on signage

We walked through the main passage of the shopping centre, hoping that we were heading towards the ferry.

Again we had a bit of trouble navigating the signage. There was an accessible toilet on our route, but the sign for it was very high, meaning that some of our group walked past it. There was also a lot of visual noise on the nearby wall which made it harder to notice.

We also took a while to notice the signs directing us to the ferry – it’s great these exist but they could be a bit clearer and bigger. They show a boat from the front, rather than the more conventional side view.

Taking a left to exit the shopping centre, we then followed a path along the side of the building, to the edge of the main road.

Outside the shopping centre, our group was glad to see the big NorthLink sign directing us to the ferry and naming where the ferry was going, which we found reassuring. We were initially unsure which area of the harbour we were headed for, as there are lots of boats visible and people who haven’t travelled with Northlink may not know what they are sailing on. We thought that putting symbols on bollards to guide people to the ferry and also mark the safe path more clearly would help us towards the right area.

We liked the idea of there being a guide that gave distance estimates – symbols and a map would aid those with disabilities – as then we would know how much time we had. This could be really helpful if we were worried about being late!

There is a help post along the route towards the harbour from the shopping centre, but there is no alternative available for Deaf people. Our group was not able to use it.

This area is exposed to the elements, and we were making the journey on a very windy day, so this had an impact on our experience.

We crossed the main road in two stages, stopping at a crossing island in the middle. Once on the other side, we took a right, walking towards the harbour beside a tall fence.

Description: a busy road crossing involved in making the connection

Description: a busy road crossing involved in making the connection

We all felt quite anxious as we approached the busy road to cross. The crossing was a barrier, as it was unsuitable and stressful. We could not find a cone underneath the button that would alert people with visual impairments as to when they could cross. We also had to wait for a very long time between crossings – so long that we wondered if the crossing was still working. We noticed several people running across the road rather than waiting, but the traffic was very fast, with lots of big lorries, so we didn’t feel safe doing this.

Once we had crossed, the path was very narrow – not suitable for people to walk alongside one another or for wheelchair users.

Description: The group considers a road crossing and surfaces on the way to the harbour.

Description: The group considers a road crossing and surfaces on the way to the harbour.

The path curves round to the left, leading us towards the Northlink terminal. There are a couple of openings to the left that we had to pass.

We noticed that surfaces were uneven, with different materials used. The unevenness of the surfaces meant that there were lots of puddles, which people with dementia could perceive as holes.

Some members of the group came up with the idea of creating a visible pathway for the whole distance – this would reassure people they were on the right route.

We reached the NorthLink terminal, passing a sign showing the upcoming departure, and entered the building.

We were pleased with the signage both inside and outside, though thought that more signage showing ferry times clearly could be positioned inside the terminal, and also signage showing bus times. The quality of information was good. A digital screen with signing would be useful, as would making sure that all television screens have subtitles switched on.

Having completed our journey, we had a short pause in the NorthLink terminal and a chat to staff, before making a return journey to Community Food Initiatives North East for some soup and sandwiches.

Ardrossan workshop

Image showing the sign we made to direct people to the workshop!

Image showing the sign we made to direct people to the workshop!

Representing Paths for All in the Making Connections project brought me to Ardrossan with the aim of investigating the connection between the Ardrossan Town train station and the ferry terminal. If you have not heard of Ardrossan before, it is the place you will most likely come to if you want to take the ferry to the Isle of Arran.

Making Connections gathered together disabled people and project partners who have all been working towards creating tool kits so that we can record all the relevant insights about the hindrances and enabling factors when making the journey between the train station and the ferry terminal. This has been a crucial part of the work, in order to make sure that none of the data gets left out and that we are able to efficiently record all of our findings.

Image shows participants sharing experiences in the workshops

Image shows participants sharing experiences in the workshops

In this workshop we went through all the worksheets with participants who have different disabilities, thus they were able to give valuable feedback from different viewpoints. We all shared our experiences when travelling which enriched everyone’s understanding of what might be the potential hindrances on this particular connection in Ardrossan, keeping in mind that the more far reaching aim of the project is to create a more universal model of connections that can be referenced for analysing the connections between different modes of transport in different places.

Image shows some of the materials we used in the workshop

Image shows some of the materials we used in the workshop

Together we aim to collect the information about the different accessible design elements that urban designers can implement when planning connections that are suitable for everyone. At the moment we see many “spaces of archaic architecture in between different modes of transport over which nobody is taking responsibility”. And we hope that more and more people might realise that this needs to change.

Above and beyond discussing different design elements, we also came to appreciate that even if the infrastructure is accessible, the services provided by the staff in different transport hubs need to be consistent and reliable. For example, a participant from the deaf community shared that on one of her journeys, when she approached staff for assistance:

“the staff were almost surprised that I was deaf. They were running about in confusion, effectively ignoring me. So, I had to be really assertive and take charge. And I am usually a quiet person, I don’t cause any trouble. But I had to, to get myself safely to the hotel”.

One of the main themes that came from discussions, was the importance of well communicated, consistent information. We should aspire to keep people who need assistance informed about all the developments with regards to their journey, or about what actions are being taken to assist them.

As one participant put it: “Reassurance is an important thing. Knowing what to expect calms me down.”

Another emphasised that it is important to be valued as a person. ”Put yourself in the footsteps of the person you are helping. Offering to assist you to the facilities, getting something from the shops, going somewhere warm and dry – these little gestures make you feel valued as a person. I’m sure all the staff value us, but it is important to show it in action. Just a welcoming conversation and regard for your needs can put a smile on your face”.

During the workshop we saw different difficulties that people with disabilities often have to face when making journeys either to visit friends and family, to see their GP or simply to go on an adventure. Many of the participants unfortunately could describe several really bad journey experiences. They prompted everyone to consider, if these were going to be your experiences when going on a journey, would you have the courage to embark on a journey at all?

This project understands the importance of journeys in people’s lives. Going on journeys is necessary when we are seeking the advice from health professionals, connecting us to our loved ones, and bringing us the sense of wonder as we encounter new places, experiences and relationships. We aspire to encourage and inform the creation of environments surrounding journeys that make all people comfortable and confident, so that they can maintain the beautiful and meaningful connections to the important people and places in their lives.

Image shows a sign to the station and ferry terminal near to Ardrossan Harbour

Image shows a sign to the station and ferry terminal near to Ardrossan Harbour

We are all looking forward to the next workshop, when, hopefully, we can investigate the connection between Ardrossan train station and ferry terminal in greater detail!

Anna Marta Sveisberga is an intern with Paths for All

Our Aberdeen workshop

I recently joined a group of around 20 people boarding the MV Hjaltland at Aberdeen harbour. However, we weren’t planning to sail to Orkney or Shetland – we were there for the first of the Making Connection workshops, looking at how we can plan the test journeys we will use to find out people’s experiences and barriers when travelling from the railway station in Aberdeen to the harbour.

The location was pretty special, and there was a lot of discussion and excitement about the comfy ship as we settled ourselves in the bar and began to get to know each other over cups of coffee. After a quick safety chat from NorthLink, Andy from Go Upstream began the workshop by introducing us all to the concept behind Making Connections: that improving disabled people’s journeys doesn’t mean just concentrating on the time that you’re on a bus or train, but thinking about journeys as a whole: from when someone leaves their home, to when they arrive at their destination. 

For someone travelling to the Northern Isles, this may involve multiple stages – from home to the train station, travelling on the train, walking from the train station to Aberdeen harbour, getting on the boat, sailing on the boat. We agreed that while Aberdeen has a bustling town centre that has seen significant development in recent years, there are undoubtedly still problems that people can face when navigating their way to the harbour – especially for those less familiar with the city. Andy explained how organising a journey together – walking the route and noting down what we find – will be our first main part of the process. In order to organise this so that it works well for all the participants, we needed feedback and experiences from the people and organisations who are experts in this area – hence this workshop!

To start off discussions, we broke into groups and discussed what made a journey good or bad, and the connection experiences we’d had that day. There were some brilliant quotes and highlights, and lots of agreement.

For example, connections work well if:

  • signage is clear

  • staff are around to ask

  • you feel in control

  • if you leave yourself plenty of time

Connections work less well when:

  • there are unexpected delays or changes

  • places are unfamiliar

  • announcements are unclear

  • you can’t find the toilet

Talking about the particular Aberdeen context, Seumas from NorthLink gave us all an overview of NorthLink’s work to improve accessibility. With exciting new accessibility developments there was a lot to feel positive about. Katrina from ShopMobility discussed the brilliant services they provide for anyone in Aberdeen, ranging from borrowing scooters to just meeting for a cup of coffee. We discussed how some of these services are not so well known – several participants hadn’t heard of them - but they could be crucial for people with physical impairments making connections in Aberdeen. We all agreed we were keen to shout about these services, thinking about how often, it’s a lack of information that makes travelling hard.

Image showing workshop participants considering questions and sharing their experiences (Image: NorthLink Ferries)

Image showing workshop participants considering questions and sharing their experiences (Image: NorthLink Ferries)

Following lunch, we heard from some participants about the particular challenges people with different disabilities face in regard to travelling and making connections, and their thoughts on the project. Fiona works for PAMIS, one of the project partners, supporting people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their families. She gave us an overview what PAMIS does, explaining her Changing Places project and its recent success significantly increasing the provision of Changing Places toilets in Scotland. She’d even brought a portable one with her, parked in the car park – and encouraged us all to take a look at it after the workshop!

Avril, from the British Deaf Association, talked about the specific challenges that Deaf people can face. Services that only use audible announcements to tell passengers about service changes for example.

With so much to think about and consider, we then went on to think about how to apply these insights to designing the journey and how to collect information during our connection journey. Allan and Dave from StudioLR, and Sara and Agnes from Open Space, shared some possible methods of recording: journey maps showing the route, picture prompts for discussion, profiles for representing each person’s experience.

Image showing workshop materials (Image: NorthLink Ferries)

Image showing workshop materials (Image: NorthLink Ferries)

Reactions were enthusiastic but there were lots of useful comments for improvement. This was the idea, to develop the materials and tools with participants, not just based on what we thought might work. Everyone wrote feedback on draft copies of journey questionnaires which we’ll now develop before our upcoming Aberdeen journey on the 12th of March. 

With a final thanks to all participants, and some words from Andy summing up the day, we left the ship feeling energised and looking forward to the next stage of the project. Retracing our steps to the train station, we talked about how next time we’d be doing this journey, we’d be recording everything for real!

If you live near Aberdeen and couldn’t be involved with the workshop, but would like to join us on the journey, you can sign up here.

Emma is a Research and Project Assistant at Go Upstream

Introducing our partners: NorthLink Ferries


With less than a week to go until our first Making Connections workshop, we’ve been busy planning for the event. This first workshop, and the journey that follows it, will look at the connections passengers navigate when taking the train and the boat in Aberdeen. For this, we’ve teamed up with NorthLink Ferries, who sail from Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland.

Founded in 2006 and operated by Serco since 2012, NorthLink runs three of the lifeline services from the Scottish mainland to the Northern Isles: the Hamnavoe which sails from Scrabster to Orkney, and the Hrossey and Hjaltland, which sail from Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland. The boats’ Scandinavian-sounding names come from their destinations: Hamnavoe was the Norse term for Stromness, meaning ‘safe harbour’; Hrossey comes from the old Viking name for the Orkney mainland, ‘horse-island’; and Hjaltland was the 16th-century Norn precursor of Shetland.

While the trip from Scrabster to Stromness is a short crossing of an hour and a half, passengers taking the Aberdeen route have a longer journey, either six or thirteen hours. For many people, this will not be the whole journey - we’re interested in what happens when people first travel to Aberdeen, before changing onto the boat. With the railway station in the centre of town and the harbour the boat leaves from slightly outside of it, does this present a barrier to travelling for disabled people? If so, how can this be mitigated?

NorthLink are teaming up with us to help find out, and as well as joining the workshop, they’ve generously offered to host it on one of their boats. Both the Hrossey and Hjaltland are modern and comfortable, with private cabins, bars and even cinemas. We won’t get the chance to take advantage of these on Friday, but we’re excited about welcoming and learning from our participants.

Thanks NorthLink!

And we’re off…

Making Connections involves thinking about the journeys we take, which are often made up of different parts. If we’re travelling somewhere, we frequently use more than one form of transport: a train to a different city, and then a bus. Or maybe a bus to the airport, and then a plane. Changing between these different forms of transport counts as part of the journey too but it’s often an overlooked one, one for which there isn’t much assistance or guidance provided.

With this project, we’re hoping to change that by working with disabled people and transport operator staff to look at what people need to navigate these connections more easily; which systems of support can be put in place and where these are particularly needed. We’re focussing on train and ferry connections, which constitute a lifeline service for people living on the Northern and Western Isles. Whether people are visiting friends and family, attending hospital appointments, or having a holiday, they rely on these connections to get them there and back.

Ensuring that there are good transport connections and links to the islands is crucial for those who live there, yet it is often not prioritised, making travel more difficult for people who don’t drive. From my personal experience, growing up on Orkney and often taking the boat south, the stress of having to try to pre-book a taxi to journey the two miles from the NorthLink ferry terminal to Thurso train station – after the dedicated bus connection was abolished – is a hassle for foot passengers in general, and particularly inconvenient for disabled people.

So – what can we do? Well, over the next two months we’re holding a series of workshops and journeys to find out. We’ll be looking at the connections from the train station in the centre of Aberdeen to the NorthLink ferry terminal which takes passengers north to Orkney and Shetland; the other will consider the rail and boat links at Ardrossan on the West Coast, where people travel to Arran. We’ll consider how to plan and measure the results of our journeys, and then carry them out, recording issues and experiences in order to find out the priorities for improving these connections.

Andy from Go Upstream explains his vision for the project:

“This project is a fantastic opportunity to bring service providers together with passengers with different disabilities to explore the reality of making connections - the spaces between services. We’ll not only discover the real issues that people face during connections but also look at some potential solutions.  If we are to create truly inclusive travel services, we need to look at every part of a journey and put the experience and expertise of disabled people at the centre of the design process. ‘Making Connections’ will help us to make this a reality.”

Our first important date is our upcoming workshop in Aberdeen on February 22. If you are disabled and would like to be a part of the workshop and journey, we’ve got some more information here.

Emma is a Research and Project Assistant Intern for Go Upstream. She can be found tweeting about current projects @UpstreamEmma, or contacted via