Posted by: Lars Oestreicher | November 28, 2012

Some thoughts on ramps and usability…

An example of a wheel chair ramp that is exposing the person using it.

Exposing ramp.

To access a building or other places where there is a difference in height it is often necessary to walk up a set of stairs. This, of course, becomes very difficult when you are using a rollator or a wheel chair, or as a parent with a pram. So, in order to simplify the process of accessing the building by adding a ramp! A ramp is a flat surface with a suitable incline and surface. This makes it much easier, no? Well, if you have tried to do some inline skating you know that to skate uphill and downhill is much worse than skating on the flat surface. Skating uphill is very tiring, and for skating downhill, well, imagine the speed you can get in a long downhill run. It is the same thing when in a wheel chair. If the ramp becomes too steep or too long, there will be a difficulty to access the building also with a ramp. Also, going uphill is a difficult feat since it will change the point of balance in the wheel chair, increasing the risk for people who are new to the use of a wheel chair.

A ramp with a strange selection of surface material - cobble stone.

By trying to fit the material to the building, the architect selected to use “cobble stone” as the surface material. However, that is about the worst surface you can have in a wheel chair.


But there are other things to consider. A ramp that is added to a staircase will also expose the person using it. It becomes clear that the ramp (such as the one in the picture to the right) is not the main entrance, but an added extra. Apart from that it is not designed to look good, but gives a generally ugly impression, clearly showing that it does not really belong.

Thus the wheel chair ramp is clearly stigmatising the person using it. He or she will be clearly visible as going a different path than the “normal” people. Thus it should be a strive for more integrated solutions, where the solutionbecomes a part of the building, where we want to have a public access

Even if we try to make things all right, there are other traps in the issue of minimising the stigmatisation. In the figure to the right, the architects chose to use cobble stones as a surface for the ramp, quite likely with an ambition to integrate the ramp in the building style. However, the ramp is the only place in the area where you need to traverse a surface with cobble stones. The rest of the area is laid out with asphalt (which is nice to drive over with cars).

What most people who are using wheel chairs know by heart, is that uneven surfaces, such as cobble stones, is the worst kind of surface you can have when using a wheel chair. The shaking of the vehicle that is caused by the stones does give the person a difficult ride. And it is also pretty sure that it has not been tested by any person who is using a wheel chair as an everyday tool. My students, during the practical sessions where they are allowed to try out wheel chair driving for a few hours, immediately recognized the problem with this surface. It should not be difficult for anyone to realize that this solution does not work well. So how come that this ramp was built at all?

A combination of ramp and stairs.

Combining ramps and stairs is very common. But why do we need the stairs?

Such a solution is shown in the figure to the left. It shows the combined approach. When rebuilding the entrance, a ramp was added, using the same material as the general entrance of the building. Stone and black iron fit in well with the existing materials. So this approach is much better from the point of view of stigmatisation. However, there is still one problem. Now both the stairs and the ramp become very narrow, and this complicates the usage. Both the people on wheels and those on foot will have to wait for a meeting person.

So, the next thought that comes to mind is: Who needs the stairs? The slope of the ramp is very small, which means that people should have little problems of walking up the ramp instead. The stairs are also designed partly as so called “donkey stairs” (stairs with intermediate smooth surfaces, which is where the donkey could make a pause when going up the stairs). These stairs are rather difficult to walk up and down, since they do not allow for a rythm in the walking. They also increase the risk of stumbling, since people do often not focus on the walkway. So, who needs the stairs? If we make the whole entrance into a large ramp, then we have all the space we need, and people will not have to choose which way to go. And above all, there is no difference made between different categories of people. Anyone can use the whole entrance.

There are two things that I think are showing in this blog. One is that we still seem to think that good enough is the same thing as good. But it isn’t, which is very clear in these examples. All these solutions do work, in the sense that the person can access the building, although while being exposed, shaken and competing with other people about the space. However, neither of the examples are good, in the sense that they do not provide a good feeling in the person using the artefact.

The second observation is the lack of including the real users in the development and evaluation processes. It should be compulsory to involve the users of the tools in the development from the beginning, even during the planning and design phase, as well as involving the final users in the testing of the result (or prototypes). This is something that has quite likely not been done in these cases. And the result is useable, but not good.

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