• Trey Hahn

User experience for everyday bicycling... already happening in the Netherlands?

In short, yes. This blog post will give you a taste of how, and how it's done implicitly without being labeled as such.

Let's start with the concept of universal principles of design. Across design fields, there are universal principles that guide effective designs, many of which stem from understanding people. Lidwell et al. have compiled many of these together.

Cover of "Universal Principles of Design" by Lidwell et al.

Dutch best practices for cycling are lined with many of these principles. I argue that this is happening essentially because there is deeper thinking about the people that will be using the bikeways. And, that this deeper thinking about people is an avenue for moving towards better cycling experiences in other contexts. Let's take a look at the principles in 3 different parts of Dutch practice: 1) manuals, 2) typical local and regional infrastructure, and 3) bicycle highways.

Image credit clockwise from top-left: Rijnwaalpad (Provincie Gelderland), CROW Manual cover (CROW), Tilburg-Waalwijk fast cycle route signage (CROW), Sustainable Safety cover (SWOV)

1. Manuals

The most well-known bicycle design manual of the Netherlands is the CROW. In building out bicycle networks, the CROW lists 5 main principles: cohesion, directness, safety, comfort, and attractiveness. A second main street design reference is Sustainable Safety, published by SWOV. Both a document and a vision, Sustainable Safety also is based on 5 principles: functionality, homogeneity, predictability, forgivingness, and state awareness. In the table below, I lay out how these align with universal design principles from fields such as human-centered design, user experience design, and usability.

Dutch cycling and street design principles aligned with universal principles of design (Sources: Giacomin, J. (2014) for human-centered design, Morville, P. (2004) for user experience design, Nielsen, J. (1994) for usability)

Despite not being labelled as "user experience" or "human-centered" design, that's quite in fact what these guides are doing. They are prescribing deeper consideration of people.

2. Local and regional infrastructure

Throughout Dutch local and regional cycling infrastructure, human-centered principles are baked in. One simple way to judge if this exists is through basic observation and interpretation. Another more systematic way that has been used on this blog is a Heuristic Evaluation. A Heuristic Evaluation uses translated usability heuristics (best practices) to assess how usable a street is for everyday people that try to cycle.

Heuristic evaluation principles translated to cycling context

To relate these heuristics, think of a typical Dutch residential street. Motor traffic speeds and volumes are low, creating user control for people cycling and accessibility to different types of people. The design of these streets are consistent, and motor vehicles are often detoured or forced to go only one way, improving the benefit to cost ratio of cycling. Consider also a typical distributor/arterial street: designs are typically very consistent, and the user's hierarchy of needs is accounted for- first by addressing safety and reliability with a separated cycle track, and further as streetscape and other design details enhance the experience. Finally, think of a regional route. The Dutch wayfinding system for cycling is consistent and ensures visibility of the larger cycle network. Built into these facilities is an understanding of people: what they are comfortable with, their abilities, and their needs.

Clockwise from top-right: Dutch local residential street, arterial street, and regional wayfinding

3. Cycle highways

With the case of cycle highways, a consideration of the people that are cycling's needs is especially apparent. These routes have a strong visual identity and planners and designers put time and effort into weaving a consistent experience through urban, suburban, and rural environments. There is also initiative in understanding people's individual journeys. If we look at it from a user experience perspective they are: putting time into making sure the route provides feedback, having the streets and network create a visual hierarchy, and providing a strong "information scent" for people to get to where they need to go.

Whitney Hess's popular blog post is a well-regarded list of user experience principles. Despite the fact that her context is in designing digital environments, the need to understand how people interact with the environment and move through it remains. Below I highlight specific principles from her list that cycle highway practitioners are already doing.

Principles of note in the design of cycle highways - list taken from Whitney Hess's popular blog post on user experience design principles

This blog post has laid out principles and examples of Dutch bikeway design and user experience to show how they align. I argue that despite different contexts and language, both practices are thinking through how people will actually use the environments that they are creating. The list is illustrative, not exhaustive. If you found it interesting, share it. More thought needs to be developed on this.

For bikeways outside of the Dutch context, I believe that the root of designing a better experience starts with thinking about people. User experience design and related fields have methods and a framework for this (don't forget the social sciences either). Stimulate discussions, tell stories, observe, and try to understand people's experiences. Where you see cycling starting to grow, it's because people are collectively starting to think deeper about the practice.


CROW (2017) Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic. Available at: https://www.crow.nl/publicaties/design-manual-for-bicycle-traffic.

Giacomin, J. (2014) ‘What is human centred design?’, The Design Journal, 17(4), pp. 606–623. doi: 10.2752/175630614X14056185480186.

Lidwell, W. et al. (2010) Universal Principles of Design. 2nd edn. Rockport Publishers.

Morville, P. (2004) User Experience Design, Semantic Studios. Available at: http://semanticstudios.com/user_experience_design/ (Accessed: 20 April 2020).

Nielsen, J. (1994) ‘Enhancing the explanatory power of usability heuristics’, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings, pp. 152–158. doi: 10.1145/259963.260333.

SWOV (2006) Advancing Sustainable Safety. Edited by F. Wegman and L. Aarts. SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research. doi: 10.1016/j.ssci.2007.06.013.

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