User and usability - and what that means for your business

Bikes in their hundreds in the Dutch city of Utrecht
Bikes in their hundreds in the Dutch city of Utrecht Bikes in their hundreds in the Dutch city of Utrecht

IN April 2015 Belfast City Council introduced its Belfast Bikes. Currently there are bikes at 46 docking stations in the city centre available across 365 days of the year.

At the time of its inception, it opened up the option, at least for me, of cycling to and from work, or even better, cycling one way and using public transport if the weather turned.

Potentially, it provided a quicker means of travel, the health benefits of cycling and the convenience of docking the bike instead of worrying about it being chained somewhere for the entire day. Given the many docking stations across the city, this became a viable commute option.

In the Dutch city of Utrecht they have recently opened their largest multi-storey parking area for bikes. This bicycle parking facility ‘Stationsplein’ has three floors with space for 12,500 bikes, and a bicycle and service point for repairs.

When I lived in Belgium in the city of Gent, though a small city, I was advised by my prospective boss to acquire a bike as a means to get to work, for work meetings across the city and for everyday activities. He was right. On weekdays it was my transport to and from work and on Saturdays and Sunday’s, I joined the city's citizens run errands or meet friends by bike. The infrastructure made this a feasible option, in that I could always get to where I needed to go.

Stientje van Veldhoven, State Secretary for infrastructure and water management, made the point that encouraging people to use bikes necessitates that is an actual attractive option. If, for example, it is difficult for people to park close to the station for the daily commute or do what they need, this impacts usability. Essentially, it needs to work well for the user to add value.

The national railway service (NS) report one million train passengers daily with a significant percentage travelling to the station by bike in cities such as Utrecht. Debate has been stirred from those in favour of such multi-storeys parking facilities to clear the streets of bikes and those that argue for usability. Having these large spaces for bikes, it is argued, is useless if it means that a cyclist ends up parking a long way off from where they need to go. This makes using the bike difficult in reality.

This is a great example of the importance of considering the user and their needs in the delivery of a service. It highlights the importance of understanding the end goal for customers. Appreciating what that goal is helps shape attractive services and the business model that will achieve it.

If the end goal for the user in this scenario is to keep the bike safe across the day, these multi-storey parking facilities will met that need. If it is to move about the city for the errands or business meetings and get things done, then it will not.

Planning the end goal with the customers needs and use in mind allows for businesses and services that are used again and again. A more tangible example of this in our own city is how people use the cafe. If your end goal as a customer in a cafe is to have a quiet space to read, which it is for many, then asking the customer is everything alright ten times across their visit will prevent them from having that quiet time, and therefore returning.

If as a cafe owner you appreciate those who are coming in to have a quiet space, it helps you rethink how you deliver that. Maybe you charge a little more than less for the coffee, but letting those customers have the space and time that they are actually buying, by understanding the value added to their Saturday morning, opens up possibility of their return again and again.

:: Elizabeth Meehan ( trained as a service designer in Milan and has a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University. She strives to educate businesses about the changing economy and the challenges this brings.