Discovering how “The Emily Test” can offer new—and better—perspectives to design

November 11, 2019 Mike Smith

Spending time on the dark lanes of Christchurch, New Zealand, highlights the importance of considering personal safety, gender, and what’s right for everyone

 

Multi-consultancy/multidiscipline teams have been undertaking an assessment of the Christchurch Cycleway in New Zealand and associated redevelopment projects to ensure that the projects are fit for purpose and safe for all users. A new and innovative process has been developed that considers the users for a project and the nature and extent that this project would have on their safety. The Safety Audit and Network Functionality framework (SANF) process considers not only the “typical” safety elements but also how a design impacts the interaction of various users and their personal risk profiles.

During this process, teams were required to assess the projects from many angles. One of our first projects looked at a shared facility that ran along urban streets and through an open reserve area that backed onto an industrial development. So, understanding the use of this facility during hours without sunlight was essential to the assessment. What did we do? We placed ourselves directly into that environment and considered the proposed design from many angles.

 

It’s important for designers to think ahead—and experience the community—while planning for future community demands.

 

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of our process:

  1. Review supplied plans and the proposed route
  2. Drive to said route in the dark
  3. Stand at the start of the route and determine (as a team) who is going to walk through the said area
  4. Emily: “I am not going into that area any further than I can walk holding my breath.”
  5. Team: “Why?”
  6. Emily: “‘Cos it’s dark and I feel threatened with the isolation/poor observation of the area!”
  7. Team: “Yea. We agree with you. It’s bloody dark and threatening, eh!”
  8. The result? An essentially new test we can run on projects, dubbed “The Emily Test.”

 

The Safety Audit and Network Functionality framework (SANF) process allows designers to experiment beyond the traditional and expected solutions. Given the right setting, it can even lead to some fun with LEGOs.

 

How “good design” can miss the mark

Oftentimes as professionals, we look at a design through a technical lens. We know the design guidelines and can apply them to a task. The design may be technically correct, but it also may miss the mark for the user experience.

The provision of adding new multimodal transport facilities into existing road networks is a big challenge. Requiring a keen attention to detail, the process of route selection—linkage of facilities along with social and network impacts—has a large impact on the viability of a route or area for suitable treatments. This is not “business-as-usual.”

One process applies a special blend of assessment and technical skills to consider multimodal user needs and adjacent land-use activities, as well as wider issues such as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), parking, landscape character, urban design, connectivity, maintenance, and future growth. This layered approach ensures an understanding of—and design responses to—inter-modal issues that may not be significant on their own but may be of strategic importance when considered cumulatively. It was obvious to the team above that, while the processes were technically correct in their respective fields, it failed to deliver a safe and effective facility when combined as a whole process.

Emily the engineer—no, it’s better to call her Emily the insightful urban designer—saw things from a different perspective: personal safety, urban form, gender, and what is right for everyone.

 

A good understanding can lead to a great outcome, like this separated pathway on the Rapanui Route in Christchurch, New Zealand, designed using our SANF model.

 

How can we apply The Emily Test consistently?

What we discovered was that common sense is not that common anymore. It’s important to stand back, lose the little details, and look with a new set eyes—or get someone who can offer that different viewpoint.

_q_tweetable:The design may be technically correct, but it also may miss the mark for the user experience._q_We need to challenge our perspectives of “good design.” Sometimes being technically correct on an issue could still result in a poor outcome. Actively seek your colleagues to look at a solution from different angles, or different technical areas. Ask yourself: Do I understand the implications of my design from the other person’s perspective?

This process challenged me as a male engineer. Did I really understand the safety issues that affected females? Or did I just think that I knew? Did I apply my risk acceptance as a male, assuming that it would apply to all? Did this bias affect my capacity to consider all users and influence my design?

Go out and test it for yourself. Have someone accompany you while you put on a blindfold and walk from the office to the café. Put on Grade 5 earmuffs and walk along the street. How did it feel? What were the issues? Do you now understand how blind or hearing-impaired people react to design?

We all need to carefully consider our designs—roads and streets, water projects, buildings—from multiple perspectives. Seek a different point of view. Ask for someone to challenge your perspectives. Look though different lenses.

If we seek the right feedback, we will be able to say we represent all our society, not just an isolated view that is ours alone. Bottom line: Do the Emily Test!

About the Author

Mike Smith

Mike Smith is transportation engineer focused on road safety based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Mike's passion for road safety, and wide engagement with clients, other consultants, contractors, and government agencies makes him well-known internationally.

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