Responsive design & behaviour at the Olympic Park

I spent a fantastic weekend at the Olympic Park, watching Paralympic events at a few different venues and generally soaking up the happy atmosphere in the blazing sunshine. As well as enjoying the sports, it was great to marvel at the design of the stadiums and the park, which felt like a futuristic landscape.

Everything seemed to work pretty smoothly, from the entrance security to the wayfinding system. I suspect a lot of this is down to the years of planning by the organising teams, who were able to draw upon the lessons learned from previous Olympics, as well as previous big events held in London. However not everything can be predicted, particularly factors such as human behaviour and the weather, so it was interesting to spot a few cases of responsive design and behaviour.

The first example comes from before even getting to the Park. The tickets I got for the Olympic football at Old Trafford were the proper ‘souvenir’ tickets with holograms and a neat design. I also bought some Paralympics tickets whilst the Olympics were on. So many other people did this that Ticketmaster had to recruit a bunch of extra temporary staff in Manchester to post these tickets out on time – and they were just standard perforated tickets. Finally, I bought tickets for the Paralympic football just a few days before the event. It was too late for these to be posted, so they had to be collected from a ticket office. In a great bit of last-minute responsive organisation though, London 2012 sent out an e-mail saying that to combat queues, they were offering a print-at-home ticket option. I took this up, and consequently got the tickets e-mailed to me as a simple PDF attachment.

The weekend I was at the Park was exceptionally hot, and one thing I was hugely grateful for were the drinking fountains dotted around the park that you could refill a bottle at. According to a few reports, many of these were added in response to hot weather earlier, and they weren’t on the official map. Given the pre-Olympics worries of wet weather (the organisers ordered thousands of ponchos), this was a neat example of responsive action.

Picnic tables at the Olympic Park

Another example of adapting the park to counter the problems of hot weather seemed to have been initiated by visitors themselves. In one of the main open spaces by the food outlets, hundreds of picnic tables were arranged neatly in grid, each one containing a bright blue or pink sun umbrella. Unfortunately, by 4PM the angle of the sun meant these were utterly useless at providing shade to those seated. However people soon discovered a fix for this, by removing the umbrella from the centre of the table and instead laying it out on top – problem solved. I’ve no idea who initiated this hack, but it was much copied, and no-one was stopped from doing it.

Finally, when leaving the park along with 80,000 other people after one of the evening athletics events, I noticed that there were dozens of volunteers holding temporary placards saying “Quickest way to Central London via West Ham”. I’m not sure how true this really was, given that West Ham station is a good 25 minutes walk from the Olympic Park along a smelly sewerbank. However given how busy Stratford and Stratford International stations must get, I’m guessing that encouraging as many people as possible to use alternative routes must really help. Responding to crowding in this way is really smart.

There were plenty of other small examples of responding well to crowds – from opening ticket gates at all the main stations to the use of temporary barriers to manage flow into and out of the big venues.

Where I feared rigid rules and strict visitor management, my experience of the Olympic Park was the opposite: staff and volunteers using common sense to respond flexibly with good grace and a smile. A lesson for organisations everywhere.