Ferndale Moves

Where did we start

Our city partner at Ferndale, gave us "How can we help cities make better bike infrastructure decision?" as a question to be answered over the semester in Citizen Interaction Design. The solution was multi-layered interactive solution allowing citizens to be heard and the city to have more understand of the problem for their constituents. In this portfolio piece I’ll talk more about how we reached to that solution and what were the different obstructions that were a part of this.

Our plan to address solutions in a semester

Understanding Context

Ferndale is a small town with a population of roughly around 25,000 citizens. The town is known for its hipster bars but somewhat low socio-economic status of people living in the area, Since the place is so close to Detroit, it too was impacted by the collapse of the automobile industry. The city council is very forward thinking and always wants to do more with the resources they have, and they bike routes around the 3 mile radius of the city council, which is pretty big given the size of this place.

Our partner at Ferndale

Our partner Justin is the person in charge with the everything around biking in the city, he is the one deciding where we create bike routes, bike repair stations, what is the different signage that goes around the city. Our initial meetings with him revealed that the city has a Facebook group which acts as a Forum for people to communicate and reach out to the city. The group has people who live in Ferndale and his heavily moderated by the council members. There were a few problems though

  • Since this was an open forum, the voice of people biking was usually brought down by the people driving or other members who feel that biking is a luxury and not a necessity.
  • The council had never contacted the only bike shop in the city to understand their needs and issues of what can be done.
  • The decisions they were making for biking decision were out of pure intuition and there wasn’t data supporting it.

These needs gave us a clear idea of what their needs were and how we as information students could help them design an experience which addresses their needs. This was great but we didn’t know what the citizens of the city really wanted.

Citizens of Ferndale

This led us to going out in the field and actually talking to people who ride bikes, we went to a few different places to find these people

  1. The Bike shop
  2. Library
  3. DIY Street Fair
  4. Bike Groups

Bike shop was the first interaction we decided to have mostly because all the people riding bikes in Ferndale have been to this shop at least once. The shop also does a great job with organizing bike events in partnership with local restaurants. We started with a more general set of questions, around the following topics

  • Biking in Ferndale
  • People visiting a month

After this leading to a more detailed set of questions around the communication

  • Communication with City Council
  • Receiving information about new bike routes or city updates
  • Issues with riding in Ferndale as a resident

The gave us some great overviews about the city which helped us go into deeper issues

  • The DDA has been in contact with the bike shop for 6 years now
  • The don’t know about the new routes, they just discover them as and when they see
  • Ferndale roads are narrow so there are a lot of close calls on a daily basis

The other people will talked to echoed these thoughts, with some of them actually commending the city council of the infrastructure that the city has provided in the last 2 years. They talked about “close-calls” as something outside the realm of control for the council.

The interactions with both sides gave us a more clear picture and we already imagined a solution in our heads, as it felt so obvious to address this issue. In a very classic way, we decide to make an app for the city of Ferndale, which the citizens would use to find information about the biking events, bike rules, report their problems and giving them these fancy curated routes for biking in Ferndale and around the smaller suburbs.

Isn’t app the best solution a design oriented student team can come up with?

We were so eager to work on this and get it done that we made wireframes and presented it on one of review our presentations to our client, the worse part the client was actually happy. Everyone was on-board for making an app which will address these issues because everyone felt this is exactly what they wanted. By this time we were in around week 6 of that planning stage that we made above and it felt so comfortable to be on track for everything. There was a small problem though.

Adapting to change

When the interviews were going on, I made a survey which was sent out to the people of Ferndale. The results were coming in and I figured that this would just act as more data that will support our design decisions and we can make this app a thing. It was a Tuesday 11th October, the day we had decided to close the survey.

This new data was not what we had expected, the results shocked us. The mayor takeaways from this survey was.

  • 60% Were above the age of 35
  • 54% have been riding in Ferndale for over 2 years
  • 41% people had close calls in the last week
  • 30% people don’t know the rules for biking
  • The most shocking one 48% of them don’t use apps

This data put light on issues we had initially overlooked, remember the part about Ferndale being a low socio-economic town. The survey was reflecting that with that big number of 48% not using apps, the astonishing part 46% of the people not using apps were in the age range of 25-34. We were not expecting this group to be not using apps. We weren’t going to make a solution that half the people in the city would not be using, this got us back to the drawing board, we decided to interview again now asking question around the issues that were highlighted with the survey.

This time we interviewed citizen of age 40 and above, who had been riding bikes for over 2 years in Ferndale, and the questions all focused around understanding the “why” behind the data from our survey

  • Why do people not use apps?
  • Why is no one reporting these close calls?
  • Why do they not know about the rules of biking?

The interviews revealed a lot more than we wanted to hear.

  • People wanted to complain but there are too many barriers to reach the city council.
  • People don’t use apps because, they don’t have a smart phone or they can’t afford the data to go with it.
  • People don’t know the rules, because they start riding bikes for leisure and there isn’t any place who is teaching rules anyways.
  • No one was listening to them on the Facebook group, other groups (Drivers) had a stronger voice.

The interviews made it clear, app wasn’t gonna happen. The biggest take away was, people had phones but they just didn’t have data or smartphone as such. We could still focus or design on creating a solution that address these needs just with a lower technology barrier.

At the same time, our partner at Ferndale gave us access to the solutions that were previously implemented by the city but never used, one of solutions was Community Remarks. Community remarks was a platform used by a lot of other cities as well, the service basically provides the citizens with a map and they can pin point the location where the issue is call it out. This felt like the perfect solution to solve the problems we had discovered, but people weren’t using this so there had to be an issue with it, either in marketing it, or even trying to understand it. Discussing further to our stakeholder we realized that they never really pushed this solution to its constituents. At the same time, our instructor released a set of constraints we had to create a solution:

  • We had 4 weeks to design/test/implement a solution
  • A budget of not more than $300 to $400
  • The solution had to sustainable after we leave at the end of semester

Working with constraints

This last set of updates from our instructor, the survey data, the interview data gave us a clear picture, we were limited in all aspects of designing a solution. At this point, my experience using free software for improving my productivity over the years and experimentation burgeoned leading me to a solution. I was going to use IFTTT (If This Then That) a service that allows you to set triggers and hooks on a certain actions. The plan was as follows:

  1. The citizen sends a SMS.
  2. This SMS is received on a phone at the Council End.
  3. This trigger should sent an email notification to council members, store this in an excel sheet for them to extract data from.
  4. Lastly, the trigger should reply with a message leading the citizen to “Community Remarks”

User Flow

This was fairly simple, because IFTTT allows you to send SMS replies from a phone and all the hooks can be easily coupled with Google Drive and Gmail. Would this solution solve the problems? Yes.

  1. The SMS was accessible by all the constitutions providing them the ability to report things like potholes, close calls, etc.
  2. The SMS provided the council with data about the people riding bikes, allowing them to reach out when a bike education workshop was happening.

I further tested the solution by performing usability testing on people, this time from a wider range 20 - 65. They had a simple task, to report a close call, they had the previous night. All three of them could successfully send a SMS, one person failed to map out the exact location. This was the point we realized that we have created a two-step process but the fact that we are getting data any both the places was rather exciting. We were not failing, we were being completely successful in two steps or partially successful in one. This finding was really important for our stake holder because he could see people sending a SMS.

Another thing we realized was, the fact that this wasn’t an app branded towards bicyclist, everyone could use it for reporting. For instance, a pedestrian could use this for reporting bikes running on the streets, what this does is create a discussion and instead of just reporting encourages conversations among different people sharing the roads, we ended up achieving a goal bigger than we aimed for. The project is due to be implemented in the month of May with the marketing material we created for them, as you can see below.

What did we learn

After reflecting this semester long project filled with twists and turmoil, I learned a few things.

  1. App is never the solution: This was heavily influenced form the idea that, technology is just a medium to solve a much deeper rooter issue which in our case was communication. Using fancy technology isn’t bound to solve problems for people, to understand problems we need to talk to people.
  2. The simplest technology can have the most impact: We came in as designers hoping to create designs that solve problem, but we ended up designing a simple Text based service using IFTTT to solve problems of a city.
  3. Sustainability: Creating sustainable solutions was something I had never thought about, but when you consider a city with almost no IT staff and very low technology knowledge you have to push yourself to create solutions that are rather simple to manage as they are to use.