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50 Design Problems In 50 Days: Real Empathy For Innovation (Part 1)

I recently travelled 2517 miles to try to solve 50 problems in 50 days1 using design — a journey that would challenge me to fundamentally rethink my understanding of the user-experience design process.

I set myself a challenge. I wanted to test the limits of design’s ability to solve problems — big and small. To do this, I left the comfort of my computer chair and set out into the unknown. Each day, I had 24 hours to observe a problem, attempt to solve it and then communicate the solution.

On my own shoestring budget, from grimy backstreet hostels to bustling cities, I travelled Europe attempting to solve a different social problem that I observed every day. The project itself was an incredible experience. Some days, my solutions were OK, some days I failed, and some days the solutions were great. The point, however, was not to succeed, but to get up every day and try again — even when I had failed the day before.

The adventure taught me an unbelievable amount about design’s power to solve problems and about my own capacities as a designer. Importantly, it honed my ability to think through and tackle problems rapidly.

In the first of three articles, I’ll share what travelling from the bustling metropolis of London to the cobbled backstreets of Turin taught me about the design process and about the power of empathy to foster innovation.

Tube Congestion Link

It was day 19 of my 50-day adventure. I found myself dashing to catch an underground train, running until I arrived at the station to find a sea of people crammed onto the platform. There were problems on the line, and trains were delayed. Surveying the scene, I decided to make this my problem for the day.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Congestion2

I took a step back, analyzed the situation in front of me and got to work. Having started my own design consultancy at 15 years old and now consulting as a user-experience lead, I knew how I would start:

  • Observe
    I examined the flow of people, watched them jostle for position and looked at the methods of entry and exit from the platform.
  • Analyze
    I calculated the time between trains, counted the number of people waiting to board and tried to identify patterns in the way people behaved.
  • Interview
    I spoke to people waiting to board, asked them how they felt and what would make this experience better.

I collected as much useful information as I could about the way people were engaging with the service…

… and came up with nothing.

At best, I had some pretty predictable solutions, chief of which was simply to increase the number of trains — a solution that hardly felt adequate.

Frustrated, I sat down. Then as the next train arrived, opened its doors and let on passengers, I heard a voice bellowing in the distance:

“Move! Come on! Move!”

I looked up to find a hefty underground attendant shouting at commuters. I walked over and asked him what the problem was.

“We can fit more people on the train, but they just won’t get on!”

I thought for a moment.

The next train rolled in.

Passengers started to board.

And I got on.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Congestion3
Getting on the train (Image: Alexander Montuschi4)

Immediately, the train pulled away, and I tried to find a place to stand, still surprised that I had decided to board. As I tried to find a spot among the sweaty mass of people, I suddenly understood the real problem.

There was space further down towards the middle of each carriage, enough to fit at least another 10 people. However, people didn’t want to move down the carriages. Instead, they crammed by the doors for fear of not being able to get off at their stop.

Whereas my best design processes had failed, getting on the train revealed the real problem to me as clear as day. I discovered the underlying problem not because I had observed, analyzed or interviewed, but because I had felt it myself.

Real Empathy Link

Trying to solve 50 problems in 50 days enabled me to realize, among other things, that the constraints of our design process can allow us to neglect a vital tenant of creating truly effective solutions: it can allow us to miss real empathy.

Real empathy is not naturally fostered in focus groups. It’s not uncovered in analytics. It doesn’t start with personas or empathy maps.

Real empathy starts with people.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Meet People5

Innovation Via Immersion Link

My adventure fundamentally challenged me on how we understand people as part of our design process. The quality of our problem solving is directly linked to our ability to understand the problem. As I tried to tackle a new problem every day, I learned that analysis of people’s behaviours and problems simply wasn’t enough — I had to make them my own.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Homelessness6
Sitting with the homeless on day 24 of 50 in Turin, Italy.

From sitting with beggars on the streets of Turin (day 42) to getting lost in the streets of Antwerp (day 23) to having no money or energy in Zurich (day 38), my adventures immersed me in unfamiliar situations and enabled me to learn, analyze and solve more effectively than I ever could in isolation.

Empathic research helps us understand our users’ needs beyond the functional, enabling us to develop more appropriate design outcomes. It is one of a raft of valuable processes and tools, on its own seemingly no more important than any other. However, while good designers understand the tools, great designers understand people.

Methods For Anyone And Everyone Link

Empathic research is not new. Yet, it is too often treated merely as a tool to create new products or as the domain of pin-up design agencies that have the budgets and clients to accommodate this type of critical inquiry. This needn’t be, and simply is not, the case. The best-designed solutions, however small, are born from real understanding of the underlying, complex needs.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Bicycles7
Observing the behavior of bicycle riders on day 28 of 50 in Amsterdam.

We can’t all travel thousands of miles every time we start a new project, and commercial realities constrain the time and resources of our projects. However, gaining a deeper understanding of people doesn’t require allocating drastically more time for ethnographic research or sacrificing other areas of the process.

Below are some of the methods I started to employ on my adventure, with many more picked up along the way. Use them, build on them, and develop your own. Our aim should be to understand people more deeply and, in doing so, to solve their problems more effectively.

Get Into a Cold Sweat Link

50 Problems in 50 Days: Map8

Do everything you can to feel what your audience feels, whether it’s ecstasy, powerlessness or relief. Say you are tasked with creating a journey-planning website. It is too often a temptation to unquestioningly rely on the conventions we’ve accumulated from other designed experiences. Innovation is born out of a natural distrust of convention and a desire to create smarter, more intuitive experiences.

Pick two locations you’ve never been to and try to travel from one to the other without using any technology. You’ll soon have that unnerving feeling of being lost in unfamiliar surroundings. Doing so will surface valuable, first-hand insight into the interventions you’ve relied on when no technology was at hand. How did you find your way? Which landmarks guided you? What processes did you rely on? How can these tools be translated into your service? The empathic research process is grounded in understanding an experience from the user’s perspective. Feeling what your users feel will enable you to understand complex scenarios more intimately and, in doing do, to solve them more effectively.

Interview People Meet People Link

50 Problems in 50 Days: Meet People9
An impromptu co-creation workshop to solve communication challenges, on day 29 of 50 at my hostel in Amsterdam.

To gain empathic understanding, rather than distanced analysis, go to meet people where they are — in their environments, not in our labs. Focus groups give us some insight into people’s experiences, but they can’t enable true understanding. We’re aware that experiences are felt: they are predominantly emotional not rational. By asking people to communicate their experiences in our settings, we are asking them to rationalise their thoughts and actions. This can never paint an totally accurate picture.

Rather than interviewing users, we should look to meet people. Take creating an e-commerce website for a bathroom retailer. Go down to a showroom and watch how people interact with the products. Meeting people in their environments allows us not only to ask them what they think of the products in front of them, but to physically see how they form their opinions. What stages of decision-making did they go through? Where were they looking? What did they compare the product to in order to reach their decision? These insights will inevitably inform better decisions and foster more intuitive results.

Everyone Is a Designer Link

Image credits: Josh Russell10
Laptop as a stand for a phone — an unconscious act of design. (Image: Josh Russell11)

If empathic research teaches us anything, it’s to be humble and realize that everyone on the planet is a designer — and is usually better at solving problems than we are. We all commit deliberate acts of organization to overcome problems, from the way we arrange our desks to the way we use a window to catch our reflection. Empathic investigation helps us to observe the ways in which people are already overcoming obstacles, and it often uncovers solutions that are more elegant than we’d expect.

Trying to design a daily news-feed mobile app? Walk into any library and spend some time looking at how people physically interact with information. From bending page corners into bookmarks, to underlining in pencil to make scanning faster, to positioning journals side by side for easier cross-referencing, once you start to really look, you’ll gain insights that enable you to combine people’s half-solutions into even more useful experiences.

Prototype In Situ Link

50 Problems in 50 Days: Prototype12
In-situ prototyping of a tool to help hostel staff communicate with guests, on day 29 of 50.

When we try to consolidate what we’ve learnt into design decisions, we do so in our studios, often on our high quality screens. Try picking up your pen, getting out of the office and finding a location in which someone might typically use the service you’re creating. Now try to design. You’ll soon have to deal with the same distractions, complications and restrictions that some of your users face. How does that affect your design decisions?

There are many more techniques for getting under people’s skin, but these are just a few to start. Ultimately, empathic research is not about asking users what they want, but about understanding their needs for ourselves.

The Solution… Not Quite Link

So, what was the result of getting on that underground train, being squashed among busy commuters and feeling people’s anxiety for myself?

Initially, the result was another pretty predictable solution.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Closing Door13
50 Problems in 50 Days: Closing Door14
Leveraging the closing doors of the underground trains.

I leveraged the closing of the train doors to suggest that people move closer together. This didn’t feel good enough — more like a public-service announcement than an effective solution.

The Solution: Play Link

So, I thought harder, drawing on my experiences and instinctive responses, and I ended up asking myself the question, “How can I turn a logistical problem into an enjoyable experience that people actually want to engage with?”

The solution? To introduce “play”. I transformed the floors of the underground carriage into a game of Monopoly. Rather than standing in jail, people are encouraged to move down the carriage, towards Mayfair — an engaging and participatory solution to a complex problem.

50 Problems in 50 Days: Underground Monopoly15 50 Problems in 50 Days: Underground Monopoly16
Computer Arts Magazine called it, “A playful way to encourage people to move away from Tube train doors. Top hat and flat iron optional.”

Since being published, 50 Problems in 50 Days17 has received some super press and some unexpected awards. This particular solution was one of the most discussed and has been one of the most widely shared.

Conclusion Link

Empathetic understanding is a vital tool in fostering innovation. If we can better understand the people we are designing for, the better our decisions, designs and results will be. Travelling 2517 miles taught me that if we wish to innovate, we must go beyond analyzing people’s experiences and try and make them our own.

Understanding people better often requires us to get outside and get our hands dirty but, in doing so, allows us to better analyze and solve. In the words of Diego Rodriguez18, partner at IDEO:

“In doing, there is knowing. Doing is the resolution of knowing.”

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more problems, solutions and learning from my 2517-mile adventure. In part two, I’ll describe how trying to solve 50 problems in 50 days taught me it’s OK to be an utter fool… and how it’s OK for you to be one, too.


Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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Peter Smart is a designer, speaker and writer from the UK. He recently travelled 2517 miles to try and solve 50 problems in 50 days using design. He now consults on user experience for innovation, working with organisations worldwide. You can follow him on Twitter and read more on his blog.

  1. 1

    While I do support the message of using empathy in design to improve usability, the mentioned “solution” to tube congestion does not convince me at all. Especially when there are a lot of people on the train, the ground will get the least attention, maybe it’s not even visible due to the mass of people.

    Gamification might be a viable solution to some problems but in this case I don’t think it’s the best solution (or even a solution at all). What about folding seats though? It might be more costly to implement but would provide more / flexible space – the exact thing essential to avoid congestion.

    Granted, this wouldn’t use empathy to influence people but is a rather technical approach. It enables people though to change their surrounding according to their needs and fulfills the famous principle of form follows function.

    Thanks for your insights though.

    • 2

      Not sure folding seats would be a thing since there wouldn’t really be enough headroom

    • 3

      Daniel Schwarz

      May 27, 2013 3:46 am

      Hi Peter.

      I would have to disagree with you. I live in London and experience this everyday. When looking vaguely forward, you’re forced to experience sweaty armpits, people that stare at you, or simply being face-forward into somebody’s chest. Looking down is a common way to go when on the tube. And the monopoly board is something that everybody can relate to and enjoy.

      Thanks for the article Pete!

      -Daniel (founder & editor of Airwalk Design).

      • 4

        Tim Mannino

        May 27, 2013 7:19 am

        Going to have to agree with you on this one, Daniel. I live near Washington, D.C. and during heavy use, our subway system has the same issue, with the same result of riders regularly finding a spot on the floor to look at as they deal with the commute. Gamifying may not be THE answer but it certainly is a pleasant and unobtrusive, if not necessarily effective attempt at fixing the “congested door” problem.

        Great article Pete, thanks!

    • 5

      How about 3 doors on each train instead of two. it would mean less seats but then it would allow more people to stand on the train, but by adding the middle door, people won’t feel trapped in the center.

  2. 6

    I don’t think the Monopoly solution works here really. The gamification of everyday life can have an effect, especially on the more mundane aspects of life like commuting but they have to be used in the correct way. The one thing missing form the process is INCENTIVE. Just standing on a named square won’t encourage your standard grumpy commuter to give up their place by the door. Incentivising with potential prizes and rewards may do. QR codes and an app on the squares maybe. Collect the properties collect the prize.

    I think the solution should be more elegant than gamification though. The problem has already been identified: a fear of not being able to get off if they move too deeply in to the carriage. Maybe the solution is carriages or sections divided into the major on/off points of the system. Going to 3 stops away? Then a standing only carriage with easy access to the doors might be what you need. Going to the end of the line then go to the all seater carriage designed for more comfortable long journeys.

    The best solutions will be the one’s where no novelty is involved and the answers seems to have been there all along.

    • 7

      I’d have to agree, to a degree, that the logistical problem still stands. Or I should say the fear, and on some trains in some cities, the fear is, to a degree, valid. Being by the door also means you don’t have to push by people, or say “excuse me” to 20 people in the way. Finding a practical solution, implemented through design, and aided by gamification, in my mind, would be the way to go.

      VW “Fun Theory” would be an ideal model of gamification, in which the reward/incentive is inherent in the activity, thus no extra cost/logistics. Work with Improv Everywhere on it? Motivate the crowd by the door to make way for those exiting/incoming, motivate passengers with multiple stops to go toward the center, and ensure a social aspect so that people willingly make way for those getting out, and people in the center don’t have to ask.

      Ex. Everyone holds a color card the represents how many stops you have to go (maybe the ticket you’re holding lights up based on the number of stops you have to go). You have to trade cards (or your ticket changes light) each stop to represent how many more you have to go. Depending on your color of card/ticket, people move closer/further from the door. Thus the social aspect provides both incentive and accountability. Everyone’s on the same page, so each know’s who needs to get to the door, and getting everyone out at the right stop becomes everyone’s responsibility. Add further incentive and design to this implementation, and it could work.


      My real question: How did you have the connections to actually implement at least some of your ideas, in each of these situations? So many see problems, and solutions, in so many situations, but don’t have immediate power to change them. Especially not in a 24 hour period. And especially government tends to take forever!

      • 8

        I really like your idea for encouraging people that are getting off sooner than later to have them stand together. While it probably won’t solve the issue completely, it allows people to feel comfortable that they can get on-and-off the train at the appropriate stop, which seems to be a leading cause for people to crowd by the doors.

        • 9

          Even if the monopoly board does solve the problem of people to crowed by the doors, but wouldn’t it lead to the problem of people couldn’t get out of the train at the appropriate stop? How can people in the middle of the carriage get out if every single space on that carriage is filled?

  3. 10

    Susanne Friedrich

    May 27, 2013 7:00 am

    Great article! Interesting problem, that I have come across in San Francisco buses too. If people want to be closer to doors, why not put another door in the middle of the carriage. That way you can be always close to a door and there would not be that dead zone in the middle. Else the doors could be spaced differently, not at either end of the train, but more central.

  4. 11

    Great discussion! Awesome project too

  5. 12

    very nice article. would love to know if this would work as a real solution when implemented

  6. 13

    This is probably one of the greatest and most inspiring reads I had in a long time.
    Thank you for sharing this, Pete.

    • 14

      This was brilliant! Can’t wait for part two. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Jealous of your adventure. All round +1!

    • 15

      Abdullah Al-Haqbani

      May 27, 2013 10:09 am

      I’m not sure why you got a negative feedback for this comment! :|
      Anyway, I agree with you..

  7. 16

    I remember reading this in “CreativeArts” Mag a few months back… Anyways good to read it again on Smashing :)

  8. 17

    Steven Fabre

    May 27, 2013 6:07 pm

    Really good article.

    I’m not convinced by the message on the train doors.
    However, gamification was a pretty sweet solution to the problem. Well done!

  9. 18

    I think this is a larger issue with a few key groups of people. I too live near Washington DC and rode the subway (metro as we call it) into the city for a previous job. I boarded the train at the first stop, meaning I was lucky enough to always get a seat, most often in the middle, but once we got to my stop, obviously the train was incredibly crowded. What I noticed is that the younger crowd (18-35) and those who had obviously been taking the train for years had no problems moving to the middle. They did it automatically. The tourists and newbies however flocked to the doors (which is why I HATE taking the train from Memorial day through Labor day, too many tourists).

    With how DC metro seats are positioned only those standing and sitting in the handicap seats near the door would benefit from the floor design. I see more people looking up and above the windows than anything else. Knowing the people who tend to clutter near the door, maybe having an automated “where the train is and what’s coming up” sign? A few cars have them in DC, but not nearly enough, and not with enough detail. This would allow those who are new/nervous to get up the stop before and start working their way to the doors.

    Is there one good solution? Not hardly. Trains with more doors? This could get people on/off faster and you’re much closer to a door (metro trains currently have 3 doors per side per car) leaving no real “middle”. In the number of times I’ve been “trapped” in the middle of the car, I’ve never missed getting off at my station. I’m never the only one exiting, and if I have a seat there are ALWAYS a number of people nearby who would love to get the seat, and thus move to allow me to leave.

    I still don’t think there is one good solution. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, but it’s not like rerouting a road. The attempt is to change human action/reaction, which is never easy.

  10. 19

    I really think this solution make sense.

    Well I agree one comment that at times of heavy congestion floor may not be visible but most of time it will work.

    It concludes important elements User Engagement, Surprise user and simply solves the problem.

    Great experiment something new!

  11. 20

    Loved your article and of course the “50 problems in 50 days” idea/approach to dive deeper into understanding User experience Design!

  12. 21

    Shailaja Bhagwat

    May 27, 2013 10:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing this awesome inspiring experience Pete.

    The solution shared may be Good or Best, but what i liked most was the design thinking, identifying/observing problem, arriving at a conclusion, the whole iterative design process and finally letting the form follow function.

    Thanks again Pete for sharing..!!

  13. 22

    Wonderful read, Pete. Relating to empathy as a basic human need is fairly rare in the users experience realm, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

    The gamification solution is pretty neat, although I must say I was a bit uneasy with the idea of schlepping home after a long day’s work and being with a game of Monopoly – essentially a competitive game, focused on profit and calculations. Even though it is merely suggested in the layout and people don’t actually have to play, I think I would be more comfortable with something more Trivia related or perhaps a treasure hunt of sorts.

  14. 23

    Steve Glass

    May 28, 2013 8:38 am

    Pete, it seems to me that the real point of your approach is to experience the problem and then share it with others by proposing a solution. Not the “best” solution or “the only” solution, but “a solution”, meant to cause a dialog. Dialoging about the problem can lead us to re-examine the problem to see if we really understood it. Perhaps the real behavior is not directly related to being able to get off when one needs to. It may be that people proceed back into the train car until they feel safe where they are standing in the group. It follows then that if you were to introduce an undesirable influence into that dynamic, such as having a “suspicious-looking person” suddenly change his/her position to stand next to the subject, the subject would move further back into the car. The problem with this is that it describes a more complex behavior, which could also be wrong. So of course we should try the simple solution first, see what happens, then re-evaluate our understanding. The real binder here is empathy with the subject who has the problem, not analysis. Thanks for sharing.

  15. 24

    Gerardo Lagger

    May 28, 2013 9:04 am

    This is everyday design

  16. 25

    Cesar Gonzalez

    May 28, 2013 6:35 pm

    The genius is not in the solution… but rather in seeing the problem… Thanks for opening our eyes to find the creative design challenges that are all around us…Looking forward to more proposed solutions for this 1 problem, and the 49 more challenges to come…

  17. 26

    I thought surely the proposed solution was going to be to add more doors. That’s what the user wants, no?

  18. 27

    How about boarding through the doors in the front, coming out through the doors in the back? Buses solved this problem years ago and it seems to be working nicely.

  19. 28

    Monopoly flooring is a great idea, however the real problems stems from people being nasty and selfish. When asked to please move along to the available space because people can’t get on a bus in London, I’ve heard a middle-class 50 year old woman say, “I don’t care”. The general public is just selfish and inconsiderate. That’s the real problem that needs solving, and it’s clearly not a problem with just the youth of today. I really like the gamification, I just think nasty people possibly need a bit of brute force (maybe packers like in Tokyo, or just a cattle-prod)

  20. 29

    Cesar Gonzalez

    May 28, 2013 6:51 pm

    So here’s my 2 cents… a variation on using floor markings: marked footprints for standing positions, and walking lanes to the doors. People would occupy the marked spaces for standing, and always maintain clear a narrow walking lane to the doors. The purpose being to eliminate the fear that you would not have an access path to the doors when your stop arrived.


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