29 September 2020 Case

Happy train interior

Every day 600.000 travellers visit about 400 railway stations in the Netherlands. The Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) would like to see passengers to not only travel goal-oriented from a to b; they want to offer them more than the possibility to wait for a train, get coffee or go to the toilet. Just as pianos at the station have a positive effect on people’s travel experiences, the NS looked for other new ways to connect and surprise travellers. In the multi-year project ‘What if Lab: Dutch Railways’, designers were challenged to devise social interventions at the station and on the train. NS chose two projects: The Language of the Station (2018) by Wouter Corvers and Bouke Bruins and Active Train Furniture (2017) from design agency Enrichers.

Active furniture leads to happier travellers, as proved by the designers of studio Enrichers with their research project ‘Happy Train Interior’ that they carried out on behalf of NS, the Dutch Railways, in collaboration with What if Lab. The NS asked them to come up with something to improve the so-called customer journey. No one can answer that question better than self-proclaimed specialists in well-being and happiness.

Enrichers, founded in 2015 by designers Luuk van den Broek, Nienke Bongers, Alissa van Asseldonk, Aliki van der Kruijs, Govert Flint and Florijn Vriend, functions as a network organisation that works with project teams in collaborations between designers and scientists, especially neurobiologists from the University of Cambridge. They specialise in enriching the social and physical environment, called “Environmental Enrichment,” by designing products, spaces and services that improve our happiness and wellbeing. From tactile tables and moving furniture to the Corona inspired project ‘Neo Hygiene,’ in which furniture in public spaces can be redesigned without having to touch it with our hands.

In 2016, Enrichers developed a test method together with Professor Jenny Morton of the University of Cambridge which they applied in the ‘Enriched Office’ project at Schiphol. They partly used this method for their research into how train interior can influence the mood of travellers. Also based on research in which physical stimulation, namely movement, influences the development of the brain, the project team of Enrichers (Govert Flint, Aliki van der Kruijs and Govert Geerts) designed a series of furniture that encourages people to be active while they travel by train. “Environmental Enrichment is about movement, among other things. So, to give people the feeling of being in a natural environment, movement is of influence. By incorporating active furniture, we want to investigate to what extent people become happier when they can move more while traveling,” says Flint. And so three specially designed pieces of active furniture were placed in trains during Dutch Design Week (DDW) 2017.

Macaron - Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Macaron – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Bambata waterbench - Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Bambata waterbench – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Floatile - Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Floatile – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)

Moving chairs and water benches

On Sunday 22, Wednesday 25, Thursday 26 and Saturday 28 October 2017 the furniture was placed in trains from Amsterdam Central station to Eindhoven Central station. When boarding, travellers were asked whether they wanted to participate in an experiment with the active furniture. Enrichers tested in a regular train compartment and in a compartment with their designs.

Participants mostly felt excited when they sat down on the Macaron, an active balance cushion placed on the existing train seat. When people sat down on the Bambata watercouch, the passengers sitting next to them moved along like on a waterbed; therefore travellers were more open to conversations. Finally, the floating Floatile caused different emotions. On a round metal disc with a water-filled rubber volume, people could surf on the balcony on the swaying cadence of the train. A large part of these travellers felt happier.

Based on eight facial expressions, determined by Professor Pieter Desmet from TU Delft, participants were able to express how they felt before and after the test (incidentally, there were no delays that could have negatively influenced the travellers’ moods). “We knew from previous research at Schiphol that gender and age can play a role in the assessment,” says Flint. “Older people are more likely to struggle with moving furniture as they are more used to ‘static’ sitting. We also suspected that people who took the train to visit DDW were more open to design interventions anyway. That is why we made a distinction between DDW and non-DDW visitors in our data.”

Survey – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)

Can inflatable pillows make people happier?

Based on data from 166 passengers, a third of the people who were not using the pillow during the journey felt well or happy. From the people who had been sitting on the active Macarons, it appeared that their feelings of happiness increased: half of these travellers felt happier than before.

Another interesting finding: prior to the test, about 40% of women said they were in a positive mood. Their mood increased by 10% after travelling on the pillow. About 31% of the men who participated in the experiment felt happy prior to the test. After actively moving on the pillow, this percentage increased to 60%. “Although such differences in relation to movement have been observed more frequently in animal studies, we cannot yet explain exactly how it is possible that movement has a greater impact on men than on women,” says Flint.

Excluding gender, half of the participants felt better after using the active pillow. “We could conclude that we, humans, who spend an average of more than seven hours a day sitting, could have a much more positive mood if we sat on active furniture every day,” Flint says.

What surprised them is that – although people usually spend a lot of time on their smartphones – 43% of the travellers indicated that they were open for a chat. They may just need something to break the ice. And the Bambata turned out to be just that.

The Floatile even tripled the positive mood, especially in the categories ‘Cheerful’ and ‘Excited’. And something else: young people under the age of 25 were expected to feel particularly drawn to surf on the waves of the train. They did indeed feel excited and happy, but they also scored higher in the ‘Nervous’ category than the age group 25-49. According to the designers of Enrichers, they probably felt watched.

Survey (image: Maaike Poelen)
Survey (image: Maaike Poelen)
Floatile - Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Floatile – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Bambata waterbench - Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)
Bambata waterbench – Enrichers (image: Maaike Poelen)

Design increases customer satisfaction

Joost van der Made from Concept Design & Innovation at NS was closely involved in this project: “One of our challenges is to increase customer satisfaction at train stations and on the train. Creative studios as Enrichers, Mecanoo and Van Berlo add enormous value to this,” he says. “These collaborations have ensured that innovative designing is a subject to discuss and can ultimately lead to innovation within our organisation.”

Enrichers’ active objects are conceptually strong, but must of course comply with strict safety regulations and must be developed further by other parties before they can be implemented in trains, Van der Made explains.

In any case, the result of Enrichers’ experimental project is that the NS has gained useful insights to increase customer satisfaction. Passengers feel more welcome, consider an active interior surprising, and give NS a better brand value. They are also more likely to promote travelling by train to others.

Most participants found the experiment viable: they gave it an average of 8.7 on a scale from 1 to 10. If NS wants to make over a million daily passengers happier, Enrichers would know how: the designers certainly would place active designs as part of the train interior.

Interested to learn more about this project? Click to download the full report on Happy Train Interior by Enrichers.