Lynn Jones Research

Is This Technology Needed and Does it Provide Benefit?

 

Background:

The research was conducted by Lynn Jones Research on usability and user research to assess how easy or difficult it was for people with visual or mobility impairment to cross a street using the Neatebox app compared to doing so without the app. The user research also highlights and summarises the various painpoints these people and groups encounter when trying to use traffic lights at pedestrian crossings.

Key Findings:

  • The Neatebox app will significantly help the target audience to cross a street more safely and conveniently.
  • The research identifies that for blind and visually impaired people, the main problems relate to finding a crossing, then finding the pole and control box and identifying when it is safe to cross the street.
  • For mobility impaired people the main problems relate to manoeuvring themselves to the pole and being able to reach the button.
  • For both groups, the Neatebox app – which eliminates the need to press a button to activate the green phase – will be a significant improvement.
  • Scale of improvement

Summary of Peoples Pain Points:

The painpoints disabled people face when manoeuvring at crossings with traffic lights are diverse and complex and often involve a significant degree of risk for their safety. According to the Highway Code’s rules for pedestrians, the following seemingly simple procedures need followed when crossing a street with traffic lights.

Rule 21

At traffic lights. There may be special signals for pedestrians. You should only start to cross the road when the green figure shows. If you have started to cross the road and the green figure goes out, you should still have time to reach the other side, but do not delay. If no pedestrian signals have been provided, watch carefully and do not cross until the traffic lights are red and the traffic has stopped. Keep looking and check for traffic that may be turning the corner. Remember that traffic lights may let traffic move in some lanes while traffic in other lanes has stopped.

Rule 22

Pelican crossings. These are signal-controlled crossings operated by pedestrians. Push the control button to activate the traffic signals. When the red figure shows, do not cross. When a steady green figure shows, check the traffic has stopped then cross with care. When the green figure begins to flash you should not start to cross. If you have already started you should have time to finish crossing safely.”

Department for Transport

 

The everyday hurdles and painpoints wheelchair users and visually impaired people encounter when trying to follow these instructions are laid out below.

“You should only start to cross the road when the green figure shows.”

Obviously, visually impaired or blind people cannot easily (or not at all) see when the green figure shows. For them, audible signals or spinning cones underneath the control box might be the signals that replace the visual signal.

But – in the words of some of our trial participants – the following problems frequently occur:

“Up until a couple of years ago, it was a given that if there was a crossing there would be an audible signal that would tell you when to cross. That was great because at that point not all crossings had the spinning cone. Some crossings in fact still don’t have a spinning cone. Sometimes they have a spinning cartwheel which is fitted to the side of the box. So there is no standardisation. More often than not, there is neither cone nor cartwheel. But since recently audible signals have often been taken off. Partially because of concerns over confusion particularly if crossing points are for example on either side of a corner (so you have a street corner with a crossing and you turn the corner and the next street has a crossing at the other point), there were concerns that there would be confusion if you had audio signals too close to each other, especially in areas where there was high winds. And also perhaps more concerning, people have raised the issue of noise pollution, for example in a residential area. Some residents don’t seem happy to have control points with audible signals.” Visually impaired male

 

This quote highlights two things: firstly, that whatever equivalent to the green person might be available for visually impaired people is not standardised. It might be a spinning cone, a spinning cartwheel or an audible signal that is comprised of a beep or voice instructions. Another visually impaired trial participant highlighted the problems he has with these:

“What I don’t like is where there are some of these crossing points where a voice says ‘Traffic to so and so has been signalled to stop’. That’s great provided you know where so and so is in relation to where you are.” Visually impaired male

The second aspect the previous quote highlighted was that often there is no equivalent to the visual green person available to visually impaired or blind people.

This, naturally, forces people to find an ad-hoc solution, which often means involving other pedestrians, as this interviewee explains:

“One thing that I do have a varying degree of problem with is that if I’m at a crossing and, say it’s very noisy or there’s no cone, sometimes this happens, I attract a certain level of attention from people. I then need to turn round to them and say “is the light this colour or that colour” and to me, you know, doing this to people, you know: I don’t know who they are. You know it could be anyone. And of course most people are just friendly and helpful but to me that’s like advertising my disability and I don’t like doing this.” Visually impaired female

To this trial participant – and it is probably relevant that this was a younger female person – the lack of any notification for her to cross the road is often reason for discomfort. Her statement illustrates that vulnerable people do not want to be in a position where they have to approach strangers.

In summary, and in reply to this instruction from the Highway Code’s rules for pedestrians:

  1. Blind and visually impaired people often experience that at traffic lights there is no equivalent to the green person sighted people can see.
  2. Again blind and visually impaired people often struggle with non-standardised control box and crossing point layouts where it is not clear if one can expect an audible signal or tactile notification.
  3. The lack of either notification often forces these people to ask for help which results in an uncomfortable situation where they as vulnerable people might feel exposed to strangers.

“If you have started to cross the road and the green figure goes out, you should still have time to reach the other side, but do not delay.”

Many of those we interviewed prior to and following the trials indicated that they often lack the time to cross a road in time causing delay for motorists and, more importantly, distress for themselves.

This delay is often caused by the time it takes some disabled people to line themselves up after pushing the button and before crossing the road:

“I have problems with my spine and arthritis in knees and hips. So I am slower than most people. I am walking on two sticks. So when I go to get the control box and then go back to the middle of the pavement often that takes me a long time -especially when there are other people rushing about – and sometimes by the time I have balanced my sticks and walked back [to the point from where I want to cross the road] the green period is almost over.” Mobility impaired female

The problem this interviewee describes is especially apparent when – as in the example shown in the photograph – there is a significant distance between control box and the actual crossing. However, the problem occurs generally when pedestrians do not want to cross the street from where the control box is located but from the middle of the crossing. Wheelchair users especially often need to get into a position further away from the control box but this point is often only reachable traversing the sloped kerb , hence, they are positioned at a downhill angle which risks tipping them over the kerb-edge and onto the street. For wheelchair users, to get from the control box to the middle of the crossing means reversing back and move to the right or left, often between other pedestrians and pushchairs.

Figure 1: Example of control point being a significant distance away from crossing

Blind or visually impaired people who use a cane seek information from the tactile pavement to navigate their way to the middle of the crossing – which also often takes more time. Blind or visually impaired people who use a guide dog need the dog to line up at the kerb and make it sit (guide dogs always need to sit down at the kerb prior to crossing a street for safety reasons) which can also cause delays.

Taken together, and again in reply to the corresponding instruction from the Highway Code’s rules for pedestrians:

Disabled people often face problems with crossing the street quickly enough due to the extra time they need to line themselves up in the middle of the crossing after they have pushed the control button:

  • People in wheelchairs need time to reverse back from the crossing point especially when the position from where they can initiate the button is on a slope from where they risk being tipped over onto the street.
  • Visually impaired or blind people are slower lining themselves up prior to crossing the road when they use canes through which they receive information from tactile pavement or guiding dogs who need to sit at the pavement edge.
  • People with two walking sticks may require extra time to hand back one walking stick to the hand they have used to push the button and walk to the middle of the crossing.

In all cases, moving away from the crossing point is more difficult at busy crossing points where other pedestrians might be.

“Push the control button to activate the traffic signals”

To push the control button is a seemingly banal step “one simply does” prior to waiting for the green figure to appear. There are a high number of hurdles and painpoints wheelchair users and visually impaired or blind people face, however, upon trying to push that button.

For blind or visually impaired people, the first problem often relates to finding the crossing point in the first place.

“In more cases than not the tactile paving only extends a couple of feet from the kerb. It would be much better if the tactile paving goes back to the shoreline (to the back of the paving). That’s the kind of problem I have: finding a crossing in the first place. I tend to favour crossings where there are railings by the kerbside, either side of the crossing because in that way I can find my way along the railing and I can’t miss the crossing.” Blind male

And another blind trial participant describes the same problem:

“When I’m going along a street at the backend of a pavement I often don’t find the traffic lights because the tactile markings don’t come across the whole width of the pavement.” Blind male

Similar problems to finding the crossing in the first place then relate to, next, finding the control box

“That’s a big problem that I have: it’s just finding the pole. And there were many situations where I’ve been waiting for quite a long time trying to get across the road because I didn’t know where the button was. Sometimes there is an audible crossing but even then: if you don’t know where the button is and you’re just there and you can’t find it then it’s quite a frustrating exercise. And it causes problems for the dog, too.” Visually impaired female

“Once I am on the tactile paving I then typically go right first because most of the poles tend to be towards the right but by no means all of them. And I then hope to find the pole.” Visually impaired male

Both trial participants describe the basic issue that not all poles (and hence, control boxes) can be found in the same position: most are to the right of the crossing, some can be found to the left, however, too. Having to navigate back and forth is not only very inconvenient; in the case of the first of the two previous quotes, the trial participant also describes how going back and forth to find a control point can cause problems for her guide dog.

The various issues people potentially face can perhaps be more easily established when the complications they encounter are described shortly after having used an actual crossing point. In the following quote, a trial participant describes the difficulties he had finding the control box at the site the trial was conducted at when he crossed the street without using the Neatebox app.

“That crossing was a strange crossing to me. This was the first time I’ve used it – I have never been here before and didn’t know how to use it. I did find it an awkward one in as much as the pole with the signal box was set two to three feet back from the kerb and that makes it awkward for someone like me to find. I did find it difficult to find even with the tactile paving that’s in part due to the roughness and the condition of the pavement leading up to the tactile paving.” Blind male

This statement not only illustrates the quite unique set of problems that might come with every traffic light – and indeed other trial participants described how different shapes and heights of control boxes regularly cause confusion but this statement also illustrates that such difficulties relate particularly to crossing points that are used for the first time.

Once the control point was found, another hurdle visually impaired and blind people often face is finding the button. The following is an observation note from one of the days the trials were conducted.

“The blind trial participant approaches the pedestrian crossing with her long cane. She was told that she would find the control box to her right. From the kerb-edge she reaches to the right. She finds the pole relatively easily and so the control box attached to it. She reaches out to the box and walks her hand from the top of the box to its bottom side – in search for the button. She then takes her right hand’s leather glove off. It appears that with the gloves on she would not have felt where the push button is. With her bare hand she fumbles around the bottom side of the box before eventually finding the push button in the middle of the bottom end. She pushes the button and seeks to jump her hand quickly on to the spinning cone underneath the box – still holding her right hand’s glove in the left hand. She is still searching for the tactile cone when the audible signal indicates she can walk across the road. Somewhat surprised by the quick turnaround between pushing the button and the signal for crossing appearing, she hastily puts her glove back on and walks across. By that point, Gavin [Neate] stepped in to help when confusion was obvious.” Observation note

A few days later, this trial participant describes the situation to me in her own words:

“The button that was there – I had gloves on because it was a cold day – I couldn’t feel it. So I had to take the gloves off, press the button then and by the time I had the gloves back on the beeper had went and stopped. So it was pretty hopeless for me. I walked across with the chap’s help [meaning Gavin Neate] but got a bit disorientated.” Blind female

This scene captured how a very tiny element – in this case gloves – can further complicate the seemingly easy task of pushing a crossing point button. Because at that particular crossing the button was not very pronounced, the trial participant had difficulties feeling it through her leather gloves. Having to take them off, in combination with searching for the tactile cone and the quickly following audible signal to cross the street, confused this trial participant fairly significantly. One can picture how other people with no feeling in their fingers – e.g. diabetic people – might encounter similar problems at such crossing points.

The difficulties and hurdles in relation to pushing crossing point buttons have so far concentrated on the perspectives of blind and visually impaired people. Wheelchair users, however, also often find it difficult to push buttons from their vehicles:

“The position of the button is quite often difficult. It is often at the edge of the crossing. Usually where the pavement starts sloping down to the road. So you’ve got to go yet close enough to reach the button and usually you have to put the brakes on before you can press the button. That’s the difficult bit.” Mobility impaired male

This wheelchair user describes the complexities involved in getting close to the button when it is reachable only from the decreasing kerb-slope. Similar to the situation described above, in this situation the wheelchair user risks rolling on to the street if brakes are not used (or not functioning properly or worn out). The situation also describes problems in relation to the height of the control box and that often in fact it is too high from the position of a wheelchair user.

The same wheelchair user describes a further painpoint in using some push buttons.

“Another one that is difficult is when there’s an island dividing the street. On the island, the button is always at the far-away bit. So when you reach the island you have to go right to the far-off end of the island to push the button to come across the other part of the street. That can be a real pain.” Mobility impaired male

At so called staggered crossing – see illustration below – the pedestrian has to go from the one end of the island to the other end of the island when pushing the button for the other carriageway of the road. This, as described by this wheelchair user, is often a problem for people with impairment.

Figure 2: a staggered crossing layout where push buttons on the island span over the widest distance possible

Sometimes, the difficulties reaching the push button do not stem from the difficult layout of the crossing; rather, they stem from a person’s inability to control arm / hand movements or the physical inability to lift the arm higher than a certain point.

Here is, again, an observation note from the day of the trials:

“The physically impaired trial participant can use his right hand to control the direction he takes in his mobility scooter. Still, this is sometimes a somewhat curvy line he drives because of involuntary movements he does with his hand that he cannot control. He approaches the crossing point from the right, swings around the pole on to the tactile pavement and close to the kerb-edge. He is on the kerb-drop but not within reaching distance to the control point. At this stage, he faces a difficult choice of two options: firstly, move back to try approaching the control box again to ideally come closer to it. This is not easy because of the involuntary movements he does make fine-tuning his position difficult. Or, secondly, move a bit further forward and to the right. This is what he opts for, naturally with the downside of being even closer to the street’s tarmac. From this point he can theoretically reach the box. It is quite high, however. In fact, too high: the trial participant can lift his arm and just reach the bottom of the box. He does not come as far as the button, however. In a second attempt, he can lift his arm a bit higher up to only just reach the push button. But he then lacks the strength to actually push it. In a third attempt, he again can touch the push button but cannot manage to push the button.” Observation note

There were two main obstacles with using the control box for this trial participant. This person initially found it difficult to manoeuvre close to the box. Upon trying to come close to the box, he came dangerously close to the street. Once this trial participant came within close proximity to the box, he found it was installed too high up to actually use it. This person would not have been able to use the push button and relied on another pedestrian to push the button for him.

Figure 3: While standing on the slope, the maximum height this trial participant was able to reach was still not high enough to allow him pushing the button

In summary, a seemingly simple task like pushing the button to initiate a signal often is a significant challenge to people with impairment.

  1. Blind or visually impaired people often struggle to find the crossing itself in the first place.
  2. Once they have found the crossing they often find it difficult to find the pole partly because it is not consistently placed on the right; it is sometimes on the left.
  3. Blind or visually impaired people can also find it difficult to see the button itself adding further potential for confusion at the point where they have eventually found pole / control box.
  4. Both wheelchair users and visually impaired / blind people often find staggered crossing difficult to manoeuvre especially as the push button for the second part of the road is at the opposite end of the first carriageway’s crossing.
  5. Some wheelchair users in particular, due to the fact that they are sitting in a lower position, find it difficult to reach the button which they frequently find it installed too high up on the pole.

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