The “Quieter Coach” G: When should we use inclusive design?

Joel Olympio
6 min readMar 12, 2024
The “Quiter Coach G” on the Dublin/Cork Train

When you design for the people who experience the problem the most you can often end up with a solution that is of varying benefits to a wider population.

But when you design for an average you often have a solution that is good enough for most and tolerable or unusable for the rest.

A tolerable pain point for someone can be unbearable for someone else. If we are to focus on the person who finds it tolerable then we might never see the problem for those who find it unbearable.

But a solution that solves the problem for the person who experiences it the most may be seen as an extreme for others if they too are asked or encouraged to use it.

Should we solve problems for those who experience it the most or should we adapt the average-tailored solution to them instead?

That is, when do we use universal design and when should we use inclusive design? When do you design for all and when do you adapt for one?

It depends on the spectrum of the problem and it’s best to discuss it with an example

I write this section in Coach G, “Quieter Coach”, on the Cork to Dublin train 1925hrs. There are gentle hums on the locomotive. But most importantly in this carriage there’s a mutual understanding between all passengers to be as quiet as they can be. No loud chatting, no music just quiet travelling. Coach G is inclusive design done so well you might not even realise it’s inclusive design. Think about all the people with sensory conditions who benefit from the quieter coach. But also the people who just like a bit of silence. It’s a solution that is of varying benefits to a range of the population but it tailors to those who experience sensory difficulties the most. And even better, it is an option and not the default. So if you want to converse or take calls in the train you can pick from one of the other six coaches.

“This quieter carriage will not only be popular with those who have sensory challenges, but also for those who wish to relax and enjoy their journey without excessive use of mobile phones or other devices.”

Irish Rail Spokesperson

The universal approach in this scenario would be a ”please keep quiet on the train” sign in each coach. This is an ask or a social suggestion and not really something that can be enforced. You will still have babies crying or kids being kids or for whatever reason people watching media without earphones. You‘ll still overhear conversations about the weather, college assignments due and plans for the Summer. Quiet has not been defined just suggested. Everyone’s idea of quiet might be different. Everyone’s sensitivity to distractions is different. There isn’t a shared, common understanding of what it means to be quiet. It would be unrealistic to define quietness for everyone on the train. And people should be allowed to talk, cry and call on a train.

So how does Irish Rail create a quieter and distraction free experience on their trains without compromising the social element? Coach G is how and it works quite well. A space has been defined in the train and when you enter it a certain behaviour is expected. Now, if you make noise in this coach you become that one person, the exception, the problem and everyone else is fine. You’re socially diagnosed as “that loud person on the train”, TLPOTT. But in every other coach that social diagnosis doesn’t really exist at least not to the full extent as it does in Coach G because everyone else is allowed to be a loud person. You’re also allowed to be a quiet person in every other coach but if you have a problem in a coach that isn’t Coach G, then you are the problem not those around you. So you can do three things:

  1. Adapt the environment to you: Use noise cancelling headphones which offer a middle ground.
  2. Change the environment: Try to find a seat in Coach G.
  3. Change yourself: Become someone who can handle the noise.

So, is it better to have every coach as a quiet coach where loud people are the problem or have one quiet coach where quiet people are the norm?

In this case a universal approach does not work because there is too much variation in passenger experiences. A coach can’t be designed for both quiet people and loud people. Inclusive design is required to meet the needs of both kinds of passengers and those in-between. And even with adaptations and changes there’s still going to be passengers who find the rumble of the train too loud and while we could make or buy quieter trains for this small group of people, unfortunately the costs would probably outweigh the benefits. It’s unrealistic to not consider financial viability in a decision like this.

So how do we solve train noise for them? Well let’s take a look at our options again: Adapt Environment, Change Environment, Change Self. Coach G is still too noisy and we can’t change the train but we can further adapt Coach G. The person can also wear noise cancelling headphones which are hopefully good enough to quieten the force of friction. If not, the person may have to change as no other external factors can be reasonably addressed.

Photo by Tomasz Gawłowski on Unsplash

The train is a one for all solution for transport as it needs to be. The carriages are a one for all solution for comfort as there’s too much variation in passenger expected comfort. Coach G is an inclusive solution that offers more options for comfort in the form of environment design. Noise-cancelling headphones are a universal (one for all) flexible tool that can adapt environments to be more inclusive (all for one). Tools like headphones are cheaper than infrastructural intervention, offer varying use cases due to portability and can be more accessible than custom intervention.

If design is financially driven which most times it is, then universal design is a good starting point. If there are simple environment/system changes that can be done to accommodate user experience variation that would be the next step. Then, if there are still user experience challenges, individualised but universally designed tools/experiences can be implemented. Beyond that it’s custom experiences.

If there’s opportunity for the reverse process i.e starting with custom experiences you have to consider all the various factors and influences that would affect that experience beyond the individual.

To bring it back to transportation, the custom experience is essentially a modified car, very expensive. The universal but individualised tool is a mass manufactured car which range in pricing. Public transportation is a low cost universal system that can incorporate reasonable accommodations and tailored experiences. Each has their benefit and need in society.

The same can also be applied to software solutions. Custom software for each person is unrealistic (though maybe advancements in AI could change this). So you’ll have to start with a universal design, then make accommodation options and then what likely happens is either the software developers or a third-party developer makes individualised universal tools to further make the software more inclusive.

If you look at Windows which has made great strides in becoming an inclusive operating system, you’ll see Windows has a number of options for controlling and organising the interface as well as tools like screen-readers for making it more inclusive.

In conclusion, it’s rarely possible to design a society for all, but it is possible to design options within systems that can equalise opportunities for everyone.