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Illuminating the Journey: Improving Public Transit Rider Experience

If you find yourself in Seattle in the near future and are looking for a way to start a conversation with a local, just mention how bad the traffic is and stand back. The subject of congestion and how horribly long it took for you to go from point A to point B has replaced rainy weather as the grievance of choice. The complaints are legitimate, as within the span of a decade Seattle now finds itself mentioned in the same category as other well-known US traffic hot spots like Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.

Of course, traffic and urban congestion are problems not only limited to Seattle. The question of how to efficiently move the masses is an issue of growing importance as more people migrate to cities worldwide. The obvious answer is investment in infrastructure expansion and transportation technology, but even as that is improved, attention must be paid to enticing more people to consider and use the different options available to them.

In 2010, Anthro-Tech started a partnership with Sound Transit, Seattle’s public transit agency responsible for train, light rail, and bus services throughout the greater metropolitan area. Our charge was to conduct user research and inform the design and delivery of user-centered technology and service solutions to improve the transit rider experience and increase adoption of public transit. The scope of work ranged from desktop and mobile offerings to ticket vending machines, digital signage, and station wayfinding. Through the application of user-centered design (UCD) methods in our research and design, we gained a deep understanding of rider needs and pain points and how we could address them to improve the rider experience.

It Begins with a Journey

We each make some sort of journey every day. It can be as complicated as an extended international trip or as simple as walking to the kitchen to make a snack. At its most basic definition, a journey is a trip from one place to another. Public transportation is an obvious application of this definition, where riders have decided to take a trip and the bus or train is the mode that they are using. Yet, the experience of a journey on public transit also encompasses all the decisions a rider may make before and after riding the bus or train, and all the touchpoints they interact with along the way. A few of these touchpoints are shown in Figure 1.

Touchpoints along a rider’s journey include the mobile and desktop website, digital signage with real-time arrivals, ticket vending machines, and trains or buses
Figure 1. Some of the touchpoints along a rider’s journey with Sound Transit. From left to right: The mobile website, desktop website, digital signage with real-time arrivals, ticket vending machines, and trains or buses

Riders do not necessarily notice or care about all these different aspects of their journey. Their main concerns are to get to their destination safely, quickly, cheaply, and dependably, but they will notice if one of them does not work. Additionally, even if a rider is able to technically make it from point A to point B and all required systems and tools function well enough, people may bring all sorts of fears or preconceptions into an experience. Even the slightest negative interaction can prevent someone from ever riding again. Unfortunately, some of these more nuanced interactions are the hardest to quantify with traditional research methods. The advantage of UCD field testing methods is that they help researchers take a direct look at how these emotions, decisions, positive interactions, and pain points contribute to the overall rider experience.

Taking the long view of a transit journey

One of the first in-depth examinations of this journey was a longitudinal journal study conducted over the course of two months in 2013. We recruited 22 participants from all walks of life to keep a record of their experiences on public transit, encouraging them to report on the issues they felt were important via their mobile phone. In total, they submitted 408 mobile entries along with 71 audio diaries. All of this was framed by entry and exit interviews for each participant, along with selecting three participants to accompany through their documented journey so we could gain more insight into their experience.

Our research revealed several dimensions that influenced riders’ behavior and experience: Expertise, Urgency, Risk Taking, Tech Use, Values, Tools, and Motivation. Three distinct persona types emerged for us using these dimensions:

  • Adventurous Allie – She rides transit for the fun of it. She has a low sense of urgency and doesn’t do a lot of planning for a trip. She is likely going to look at static information signs and talk to people rather than use online or mobile tools.
  • Habitual Harry – He is your daily commuter. He sits in the same spot on the same route to and from work every day. He does not plan much beforehand since he knows the time and route that he wants to ride, but he does have more urgency to catch that specific bus or train to stay on schedule. Once outside of his normal routine, he knows little about the system.
  • Determined Dana – She rides transit everywhere all the time. She is very savvy with all the static and online tools available to her and knows the system well.

People who were unfamiliar with the system were still missing from our data. By leveraging outside rider surveys from Sound Transit we found:

  • Potential Paul – He can be the tourist from out of town or the resident who doesn’t ride. He might rarely use the bus or train for special occasions, but the system is intimidating for him. He will use planning tools before trips and look for help from all available sources.

Beyond these personas, the study also uncovered what riders value and expect from the assets of the system such as stations, stops, or modes (for instance, buses or trains). It also provided a glimpse into other ancillary rider behaviors such as wayfinding through and around stations. Overall, this journal study provided a robust foundation for our future work.

Leaving the Station(ary)

The challenge in working with technology in public transit is that at some point it is likely that every query either needs to be translated into a very complex real world environment and/or needs to function within it. For this reason, traditional methods of usability—such as strict lab studies—were not always viable for getting a true picture of how the technology was fitting into the rider journey. This isn’t to say we completely ruled out lab studies, but rather we complimented them by inserting ourselves into the rider journey early and often to understand how well our designs would work for users.

Field testing “in the wild” provides several advantages:

  • It is a lightweight and relatively inexpensive way to obtain feedback early in the design process from a large number of participants in a representative population.
  • We can directly observe how technologies fit into the user journey and how they are used.
  • We can gather valuable feedback about ancillary aspects of the user journey along with an unfiltered look at users’ behavior, their needs, and the physical, mental, and emotional pain points they may face.

Of course, this type of testing has some disadvantages too:

  • There may be difficult or sensitive logistical and technical hurdles to overcome (for instance, clearance to test in certain environments, privacy, availability of electrical outlets, etc.).
  • “Unfiltered” feedback might lead down roads of unrelated or uncomfortable topics that you must be prepared to navigate. This can be especially tricky with public entities where people tend to have strong opinions.
  • Lack of control over variables and the limited ability to prepare for when things (inevitably) don’t work quite right. We often encounter overly curious bystanders interrupting a session, necessitating one researcher dedicated to recruiting/keeping the public at bay.
  • Braving the elements and dealing with weather and field fatigue. Riding trains and buses all day might make even the hardiest facilitator motion sick.

Meeting the rider where they are

Sound Transit’s desktop and mobile websites in particular proved to be prime candidates for a combination of quantitative research, field testing, and lab usability studies. For example, during the desktop site redesign, analytics and online surveys of riders provided us with a starting point about where to focus our design efforts, but field testing is where the we were able to solidify our ideas. Our team took initial paper wireframes and mood boards out on Sound Transit trains and buses to get early feedback on the look, feel, and functionality of the desktop website before any heavy design work, along with learning more about what users expected from the desktop site (see Figure 2). Prior to launch, we later complimented this with a controlled laboratory baseline study of the prototype.

Researcher on a bus using paper wireframes and mood boards for the desktop website redesign.
Figure 2. Testing paper wireframes and mood boards on buses and trains for the desktop website redesign.

Field testing for the mobile website was a natural fit, and a tactic that proved particularly effective was “guerilla” usability testing. Thankfully Anthro-Tech’s office is near the famous Pike Place Market which is full of tourists with no idea of how to navigate Seattle, and residents with various degrees of familiarity with the transit system. We ambled our way through the market and surrounding area offering gift cards for coffee for 10 minutes of their time (an easy sell in Seattle). We would then have the participants do one of three different scenarios testing different features of the phone (see Figure 3).

Researcher, in identifying apron, holds a session guide in her lap while she talks to a visitor to the park.
Figure 3. Guerilla testing at Pike Place Market.

We also experimented with moving the lab setting to the field during the mobile website testing process. We created full mobile testing sites at light rail and bus stations near SeaTac airport to capture riders in transit and record their experience using the mobile website with a more controlled setup. All of this testing allowed us to again find a large sample of our target audience in a short timeframe and gather a sizeable number of data points.

Getting That Ticket to Ride

While Sound Transit’s desktop and mobile sites were relatively easy to test in both a conventional lab environment and in the field, the experience of using ticket vending machines (TVM) and digital signage are not easily replicated outside of their physical environments. These technologies are both influenced by, and exert influence on, their surroundings. Additionally, the logistics of field testing these types of tools are tied to the complexity and constraints of the machinery running the interfaces.

The TVM in particular was a challenge to test. The objective of our study was to observe how well our prototype interface guided the user to understand how to pay for and use the transit system. The biggest issue was that it was not possible to change an interface for a day, effectively removing the machine from operation. Our solution was to again find riders in transit stations to test our prototypes. We first started out with paper wireframes, then leveraged the more agile capacity of an iPad to first test low-fidelity prototypes that had a similar interaction experience to the TVM. We finished our testing with high-fidelity prototypes on iPads laid over the actual touchscreen interface of a TVM. This last method allowed us to continue to observe riders in the context of the station environment using the TVM in their journey without disrupting the functionality of the station. Figure 4 shows the progression of our prototypes and testing methods.

Researchers in identifying aprons show how they test the Ticket Vending Machine interface using paper wireframes, low-fidelity prototypes remotely, and hi-fidelity iPad prototypes
Figure 4. Testing paper wireframes, low-fidelity iPad prototypes remotely, and hi-fidelity iPad prototypes on the TVM.

On the other hand, digital signage imparts information while the rider is physically walking (or running) in their journey. In the case of our testing, the signage was delivering real-time bus and train arrival and departure information. As it is part of the physical environment, it is also impossible to separate the digital signage from the overall wayfinding and navigation system as riders may use it in conjunction with other static information to make decisions on when and where to wait for an arriving bus or train. For that reason, we decided to test the digital signage using a shadowing study with recruited novice transit users where we followed them through a station while they worked to complete a scenario. We looked to see how well they could physically locate and react to the signs, cognitively understand the information presented, and how they used other information in conjunction with the digital signs.

Maneuvering the System

All of these studies were done to understand how well different tools performed in different contexts. Yet certain elements of the rider journey became evident no matter which tool was being tested. We received consistent feedback on the needs and pain points of riders we tested with, regardless of the platform (see Table 1).

Table 1. Common Rider Needs and Pain Points

Rider Needs Rider Pain Points
Help riders stay informed

Passengers want to know when they are going to arrive or how delayed they will be.

Trip planning

Riders need a robust and progressive trip planning application to help them adapt as they go.

Create a feeling of freedom and flexibility while traveling

Informed riders can take more control of their journey because they will know of other routing options.

Rescue and recovery information

When things go wrong on their journey, there are limited resources to help a rider get back on their way.

Trustworthy and reliable

Riders want to get to their destination quickly and on time with honest, reliable service.

Real-time data

No real-time data exists for trains and the information used for buses is sometimes inaccurate.

Create a welcoming environment

Make services friendly, safe, professional, clean, convenient, and inexpensive.

Problems finding their way

There is a lack of tools to support riders as they navigate through and between stops and stations.


Riders get confused when they have to use multiple modes or make a transfer.


The options for payment are not always convenient and are not in line with available technology.


Overall, we observed how feelings of confidence and uncertainty were the basic emotions that drive rider behavior. A rider’s sense of confidence when using transit is affected by:

  • Experience with the transit system
  • Familiarity with a certain route or mode
  • Familiarity with a station and the surrounding area
  • Frequency of the service being used, and/or
  • A rider’s understanding of their trip plan

Conversely, feelings of uncertainty emanated from:

  • Lack of control
  • Decreased freedom
  • A lack of flexibility

Inserting these sources of uncertainty into any rider’s journey can erode confidence and make even the most experienced rider a novice very quickly. Examples of these are route cancellations, detours, missing a bus or train, or simply being in an unfamiliar area. What we find when examining this framework are really two basic types of riders:

  • Those with high confidence and low uncertainty
  • Those with low confidence and high uncertainty

Understanding these two groups can help us design usable systems that accommodate both sets of needs. For those in the first group, we provide quick trip plan refinement tools and/or quick links or pathways to the information they need. The second group will need more in-depth information and robust tools to help experienced riders recover when things go wrong, or help inexperienced riders figure out an unfamiliar system.

Overall, addressing more personal and situational needs allows us to tailor the tools to the individual and/or basic rider groups. When we provide information specific to the user’s environment (where they are and what their needs are in the moment), they will have better experiences (see Table 2).

Table 2. Personal and situational aspects of design for rider needs and pain points

Personal: Knows Me Situational: Knows my environment
·      Remember information a rider frequently views

·      Surface related content

·      Save favorite stops, routes
and schedules

·      Create personal accounts

·      Know where riders are and help them with information along the way

·      Help riders recover from
service interruptions

·      Give riders real-time alerts that affect their current trip

·      Provide alternatives for finding out bus arrival times

All about consistency

Another aspect of the system that we regularly observed was the lack of consistency between different touchpoints and their overlapping attributes. Government organizations, just like private ones, are often deeply compartmentalized with one department not fully aware of what another is working on or producing even though they directly affect each other when implemented. The blending or disparity of experiences as a rider navigates a system that is already as complicated or intimidating as transit can be confusing, especially for the Potential Pauls of the world. Our task was to be the champions of knowledge between projects handling these touchpoints and be a consistent advocate for the user by creating a cohesive experience for them. We took care to ensure that all elements like maps, icons, naming conventions, and interface behaviors and interactions were as similar as possible.

Arriving at the Destination Together

The idea of a journey can also be applied to a long term engagement with a client. For Anthro-Tech, any such engagement always has an end destination in mind. Our ultimate objective is not just to create great products and systems for a client, but also to instill UCD as a philosophy in the organization that can outlast anything we provide.

As this is applied over the long term on multiple projects, we pay close attention to how we can find a champion of UCD within the organization (preferably at a high level) that can continually advocate for the user, even when we are not present. Having this consistent voice can be a powerful influence of change that helps prioritize user-centric thinking and service offerings. The ultimate extension of this change would be the permeation of UCD to internal processes. When processes become more employee-centric, organizations realize that designing a great service for external users starts with a great experience for your own employees.

Sound Transit was also new to the idea of UCD and design thinking. They were primarily focused on engineering and construction work and principles. The idea that the central focus of their efforts would not be just service delivery, but rather starting with the rider experience, was a shift in thinking. Therefore, we were also aware that this type of approach would take not only gradual implementation, but also long term vision and guidance. One of the final recommendations that we provided was the idea of creating a C-level customer experience position that would oversee the rider experience and champion consistency in touchpoints to the users.

The idea of improving the rider experience in Seattle is ongoing. We proudly presented the results of some of our work to other regional agencies and continue to champion UCD to create more usable public services and organizations that better serve the people. It is truly an exciting time to be using UCD to create ideas and designs for a city that will affect the experience of generations to come.