Gehl Public Life Tools

Helping public life advocates choose the right tools for projects in their communities.

Gehl Institute is a non-profit dedicating to transforming the way cities are shaped by making public life an intentional driver for design, policy, and governance. Gehl Institute engaged Objective Subject to design a responsive web platform to disseminate a suite of open-source tools developed to measure activities in public spaces around the world. I guided the UX Design and UI Design phases of the project, and contributed to User Research / Strategy.

Date: Summer 2017


Sample Tools (l-r): Stationary Activities Count, Public Space Quality Criteria

Gehl Institute developed a suite of open-source tools that measure activities in public space, like cycling and socializing. They needed to introduce the tools and help users choose which to use, but weren’t sure how.

They engaged us to research and interview their audience, which would in turn help us brainstorm and narrow down options.


Possible Functionality Overview

We started by talking to users and potential users to get a sense of why they would use the tools. Then we did an open-ended brainstorm of the types of products that might engage those audiences.

Gehl had some sense of who was using tools based on signups to their email newsletter. From that data we created a few profiles / personas of typical users, such as academic researchers, public space advocates, elected officials, and agency staff.

We then spoke to users from these various groups, found out why they might need or use Gehl tools, and used our findings to write user stories for the tools in the format “as [role], we wanted [outcome], so we [action] using [tool]“.

For instance, “as local change-makers, we wanted to make a strong case to our mayor for a new public plaza, so we surveyed community members using an Intercept Survey“.

Now with a better sense of why people needed the tools, we essentially needed a platform that could recommend the right tool or tools based on a user’s desired outcome (our ur-user need!). We brainstormed types of platforms—a Possible Functionality Overview (left)—that might help users accomplish this need, then evaluated them using our user profiles. For instance, a message board / forum might be great for academics, but too technical for public space advocates. A social network might be more accessible, but too unfocused and labor-intensive to monitor.

The idea that seemed to strike the right tone for most profiles was a decision tree, which could be used to suggest tools for specific use cases. We thought it would work for both casual audiences and power users. Then we had the idea to make the decision tree fun and interactive—a quiz. Our contacts at Gehl Institute were on board; they shopped the quiz idea around internally and with users, and the response was enthusiastic.

As we moved into beta phase and began building the quiz, we iterated its logic with team members at Gehl—working backward from desired outcomes to establish the questions that would feed the behind-the-scenes algorithm that would return tool results.

Task Flow

The quiz was just one component of a larger Public Life Tools portal though, which would need to show the quiz alongside profiles of each tool and case studies of how the tools were used to transform communities. In a global task flow diagram we explored ways this back-and-forth between quiz, tools and stories might circulate users around the site to give them a full picture of the tools’ capabilities. In addition to the quiz, we designed a Tools landing page that introduces each tool (what it measures and why it’s useful), individual tool terminal pages, individual tool case studies (how they were used to benefit a community), and a homepage to tie everything together.

In parallel we pushed the site’s visual language, using Gehl’s minimalist brand as a starting point for flourishes specific to the functionality we added. We designed icons for the quiz responses, while Gehl engaged an illustrator to design vignettes to represent the tools themselves.


The Public Life Tools portal clearly introduces Gehl Institute’s open-source tools, and shows how they can be used to transform communities. Its quiz empowers key audiences by helping them select which tools make sense for their projects.