February 1st 2019 – we visited the town of Beccles in Suffolk to speak to the Women’s Institute about our app concepts and go on a walk around an area just north of Beccles called the Beccles Fen. This is our third and final site visit for this part of the Broads Authority project.

Beccles Fen walk

The walk begins at Beccles Quay which is easily accessible and has free parking. Admittedly the car park is not managed at all and is rather potholed, but it’s free and easy to reach from the town centre of Beccles. There are signs from the car park by the quay to the Angles Way on traditional fingerposts, one of which is the feature image of this post. This was pleasing to see given that previous sites such as Breydon Water have very little signage at all from car parks to the walk itself. There are also some fairly detailed interpretation boards located by the quayside and also along the walk which detail some local history and also give some circular walk directions along the Angles Way. The boards are in relatively good condition and are still readable.

One of the interpretation boards situated on the River Waveney detailing the area’s history and some route suggestions.

The walk goes from the quayside on the River Waveney, north of the town, then under the A146 road (which goes from Norwich to Lowestoft) and then follows the River Waveney on the other side of the A146 road and then goes around the fenland/marshes dedicated paths, which were a little muddy when we visited. This again is an improvement from the Angles Way at Breydon Water, which is entirely on mud paths.

Some of the walk around Beccles Fen is on hard-standing ground, such as roads. This makes for a more comfortable walking experience and shows there has been some development.

Cultural heritage aspects of Beccles Fen and the area

Our historian explained that the name ‘Beccles Fen’ is not related to the famous fens in West Norfolk and Lincolnshire, but rather are more of a reference to the fact that the land has been drained. The fens in Lincolnshire are intensively farmed pieces of arable land, famous for their drainage channels. The land north of Beccles was once also intensively farmed and was drained, creating a ‘fenland’, which is where its name derives from. The land is not heavily farmed today, but farming was once a massive part of the way of life in this part of the Broads. Our historian even mentioned how one of his jobs was in a potato shed in this area which we walked past – this likely would have been in the late 1960s or early 1970s, so even recently this land was arable and there was big money to be made from farming.

Reed cutting was also a big industry on this part of the Waveney and is still sometimes cut today. The most famous example of a building with Norfolk/Suffolk Reed thatch is the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London – the original also had thatch made from reeds from this area of the country. In the 1500s when the original theatre was constructed, Norfolk Reed was seen as being very premium and luxurious. Not only was it tougher than the usual thatch material used at at the time, it was also expensive to transport it from the Broads in Norfolk and Suffolk where it originated from to London. The colour of Norfolk Reed thatch was also different from regular thatch, so the choice of colour may have been an aesthetic decision too.

Reeds seen by the Waveney river near Beccles.

Today, Beccles is a quaint town that lies on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (the Waveney river creates the border), but once it was a fairly industrial town with industry and was also at one point a busy railway junction. The only railway line that runs through Beccles today is a single-track line that runs from Lowestoft to Ipswich (where commuters can connect to the Great Eastern Main Line which goes from Norwich to London Liverpool Street), but pre-Beeching Axe (1960s), Beccles was an important junction. It served lines that connected directly to the Great Eastern Main Line which provided a direct connection from London to Lowestoft and also lines that went to Great Yarmouth. Today, the only reminders of these railway lines are some disused railway lines on the Fen which now form part of the walk that we did and some aptly-named roads in the town centre which refer to the ‘scores’ – a reference to the railway banks.

A rather industrial-looking Beccles in c.1870 – the stone bridge in the foreground was demolished in 1881 and replaced with an iron bridge which still stands today. The town’s famous church tower can be seen in the background, but the factories in the foreground are all gone today.

These links made it an important industrial link. Farming was a big industry in the area, as was the production of cotton, fabrics and even coal. The whole of the Broads area has an interesting cotton production history, most notably Maddermarket in Norwich, which was a market where the red dying pigment ‘madder’ was sold.

Printing and arts are also an industry/cultural feature of the area.

Some of the old factories in Beccles have since been repurposed into commercial properties and private housing. Here’s an example of one.

Our historian also explained that there used to be a festival held in the area in the 1970s which he describes as ‘a little like Glastonbury in the early days’. He says it was a fairly left-wing, radical politics festival with ‘hippies’ who wanted to break free from the Marxist-style left-wing politics of the Labour government of the 1970s and the right-wing Conservative opposition party. The Labour government were ‘failing’ the country in their eyes and a right-wing alternative? No chance! They wanted break out to focus on radical new ideas, such as environmental politics – similar to what today’s Green Party stands for. These festivals were a chance to express their anger at the political spectrum in the UK at the time as well as having fun.

Landscape heritage aspects of Beccles Fen and the area

Most of the landscape aspects are a result of the agricultural aspects described above. There’s nothing really in the way of glaciation or natural processes that has really formed this landscape that couldn’t be described at one of the other sites that has been visited. However, it was interesting to hear from our historian that this landscape has regressed back to how it looked around 100 years ago, before it was farmed, so this could be an interesting point to build on.

Ecology aspects of the Beccles Fen and the area

Much like the other sites that have been explored, wildlife varies from birds to water mammals that live in the reeds and insects such as dragonflies. There are also several species of plants here which could be investigated further.

Feedback from the walk

The Women’s Institute members we walked with were from Lowestoft and walk every week. They enjoyed the walk and were very surprised that they hadn’t done this walk before. They mentioned that although they enjoyed the walk, they felt:

  • It was great to go on this walk with our historian, who was able to tell them interesting information about the area.
  • A little disorientated because of lack of signage on the walk.

The signage starts off strong in the town and as you walk underneath the A146 road, but beyond there is little signage and it is probably easy to get lost or disorientated.

The diversity of the walk was praised – the WI liked how it began in the town, went out by the river, then into rural countryside before coming back into the town.

The walk begins at Beccles Quay, generally the most southerly point on the Broads where there are holiday and day boats.

 

The walk goes underneath the A146 road, heads north of Beccles and then follows the River Waveney for a short distance.

 

The walk then goes into the rural countryside, often going along private roads.

 

The walk ends in the town centre of Beccles. This street is actually part of the Angles Way.

The Broads Authority have stated that a pain point for them on this walk is the lack of signage from the quay to the town centre of Beccles. They’d like to encourage people who are walking (or boating) to come into the town centre from the quay to visit local attractions and shop in the town to support local business. The quay is a short walk from the town centre (approximately 10 minutes) and there are plenty of places to eat in Beccles and there are even several ‘big’ high street names in the centre (Superdrug, Prezzo, New Look and WHSmith, for example) but they believe that not many people are making the trip. There are signs in the centre of Beccles, such as the one pictured below, in the centre of the town, but there aren’t all that many signs from the quay to the town centre.

Angles Way signs on a fingerpost in Beccles town centre. Angles Way signs are green and larger than signs for other places, but the Broads Authority wonder if signage could be improved.

Beccles Fen as a location

As a location, it works OK. The mobile broadband speed is around 5mbps down and 3mbps up, which is reasonable (though the WI said that certain parts of the route have no service at all).

The area is definitely best-suited to the cultural heritage theme because there is a lot of industrial history that can be taught – it is not as strong as Carlton Marshes for the ecology theme or Breydon Water or even Burgh Castle for the landscape theme. It’s difficult to think of something that could be done here that hasn’t been suggested before or would really stand out from another location. It is within driving distance of Carlton Marshes and probably a few hours’ walk, so it could possibly be linked with Carlton Marshes – Carlton Marshes could focus on ecology and landscape and this more on the history, but with it being a remote walk and a little way out of Beccles there may not be a lot of people who utilise any facility here.

Mobile broadband speeds at Beccles Fen were decent.

Concept usability testing

On January 31st I designed several screen concepts for a potential 360 degree image experience at Burgh Castle. These were ‘tested’ today with the WI to see how they reacted to them, what they thought of the idea and see if there were any potential usability issues before even a proper wireframe has even been drawn. This is extremely formative usability testing.

A bit about the testers

The concept was tested by three older WI members, here is what I gathered:

  • All of them were grandmothers.
  • All of them had iPads, but only two of them had a smartphone. They like the simple design of Apple’s interfaces and it is what they are used to.
  • They are quite into fitness and fitness tracking – a couple of them were wearing FitBit. Interestingly, the one without a smartphone was wearing a FitBit.
  • Each of the two smartphone owners had an iPhone (one 5S, one 6).
  • They are familiar with the use of QR codes.
  • They don’t listen to music on their devices.
  • They are quite happy to leave their phones at home – they wonder if being attached to your phone all day increases the risk of mental health illnesses developing.
  • They enjoy walking because it is graceful, good exercise and also a good way to socialise and they appreciate the serene environment.
  • They feel that the Broads are underrated.
  • They enjoy looking for the wildlife.

They mentioned the following paint points:

  • Signs were often pointing in the wrong direction.
  • Maps on boards were often not displayed in the correct orientation.
  • They’d like to be able to identity more of the wildlife and flowers on their walks – by the time they got home to find out, they’d forgotten what it looked like or even that they had wanted to find out.
  • They find it hard to identity wildlife, such as birds, that move quickly.
  • There are not many people also doing these walks – they’d like to see more people using them.

Their thoughts on our concepts

On January 31st we deiced that the we’d ask for the WI’s opinion on the following concepts:

  • ‘An adventure for the senses’
  • ‘Discover what nature is hiding’
  • ‘Escape to explore’

The themes were generally met with positive feedback.

‘An adventure for the senses’¬†was the theme that they liked the least. They said that they’d expect big things and expect it to be to very visual and immerse the senses. They said that it might not live up to expectations and that what is an ‘adventure’ for some people is not for others.

‘Discover what nature is hiding’ was preferred. They’d expect to have to find something or learn about things they may not already know about. They’d expect to learn about the nature, landscape and the cultural heritage from this.

‘Escape to explore’ was also a popular option. We explained that we felt that ‘escape’ is potentially the wrong word, indicating that you are running away from problems rather than fixing them, but they turned that on its head by saying that you have to escape mental problems to get better and ‘escapism’ is not a bad thing. They also said that people should feel better for going outside.

From this we learned that the ‘An adventure for the senses’ may not be the best app concept or slogan for the experience. The other two were stronger options with fewer expectations placed on them.

The WI’s thoughts on my 360 degree image concept

I printed each of the screens that I designed onto an individual sheet of A4 paper and presented each to the WI members. I started off explaining a lot – too much, really – but soon I started putting the screens down in front of them and asking them what they thought would happen and getting them to explain how to move between screens and showing me where they’d tap or swipe on items.

The black and white prints of my wireframes which were presented to the WI.

On the whole, the task proved that I had designed a very usable design with the WI getting almost all of the call-to-actions correct – that means identifying their locations, explaining what they’d do and even the animations that they’d expect to see.

For information on the user flow, please read this post or look a the diagram below. The WI understood exactly how to use the app and felt that all of the screens and interactions were logical.

This is the user flow diagram showing the interactions between screens.

The only usability problem that were identified were:

  • The button on the fourth and last screen, titled ‘Go back in time!’ was misinterpreted. When designing this, I thought it was a playful way of saying ‘back’ or ‘return’, but this was misinterpreted by the WI (and my peers) as ‘go back even further in time than c.300 AD!’ which was not intended.
  • The button at the bottom of the screen on the fourth screen was said to be too similar to the one on the previous screen – users may not notice it or get confused about what it was supposed to do.
  • The WI didn’t understand the use of the question mark symbol ( ? ) for the help button.
  • One member thought that the close button (‘X’) on the third screen would ‘delete’ the experience, but soon realised that it was meant to close the experience.
  • The WI didn’t notice at first that the 360 degree image was not for the year 2019, but for the year 300 AD.
  • It was mentioned that the ‘About’ screen (shown as the fourth one in the diagram above) suffers from ‘wall of text syndrome’ – there is possibly too much text and too little imagery to break it up on this screen.

We debated whether or not the web app would need two views: Burgh Castle, 2019 and Burgh Castle, 300 AD, which could be toggled between. Most people argued that there was only a need for the 300 AD image because you can experience ‘2019’ with your own eyes. This would make the app simpler to design.

The WI loved the idea and said it was ‘cool’ and would be fun to use with the grandchildren. They immediately understood what the 360 degree view was and how it worked without any explanation from me, comparing it to Google StreetView. The idea also went down very well with our representative from the Broads Authority.

The WI wondered if the experience could be extended by:

  • Offering an audio tour whilst panning around the 360 degree image to save you reading the text – but it was mentioned that without headphones this may disturb other visitors (but our Broads Representative said that people might see and hear other people using the web app and that could help increase interest).
  • Having information ‘pop up’ on screen as you move the phone around could be helpful and save screen space.
  • They suggested maybe you could go to ‘different scenes’, e.g. the castle battlements, castle kitchens, on a warship and so on.
  • They suggested that audio of events and actions could help to make the experience even more immersive.

This is all very interesting feedback and will be taken onboard.

Other ideas

Naomi’s ‘instructional’ app idea was focused on getting the user to explore the surroundings by getting them to complete tasks such as finding wildlife after telling them all about it. This idea was also very well-received but the WI felt that it would be better suited to a desktop or tablet experience than a smartphone experience and they weren’t sure if they’d prefer to use it whilst out on a walk or at home to help plan the walk. Naomi had also made quite an interesting ‘dial UI’ concept to allow users to select options which I liked, but the WI weren’t so keen on. The WI felt that this app idea also had a strong use case.

Ameer’s health and fitness idea also went down well with the WI, who liked the fitness tracking aspect and the UI designs that he was proposing too. They felt that swipe interactions were more intuitive than touch interactions.

Ideas from my colleagues Ameer and Naomi (pictured in Beccles with me) also went down well with the WI.

What’s next?

We are back at university on Tuesday February 5th where we might be choosing a location to focus on and possibly one web app idea to focus on! The session with the WI at Beccles was very helpful and we’d like to invite them to do some proper paper prototyping with us at some stage later on in the project.