SmartBart:

I worked on a 5-week design project with two of my classmates. Our client, Ford Motors, gave us a design challenge to "Redesign the mobility experience of the future". We were given the freedom to work on any challenge we wanted, with little concern of technical feasibility. As the lead user researcher, I was responsible for conducting contextual inquiries, designing interview scripts, writing usability reports, prototyping and more. We designed a mobile application called Smartbart, a tool that helps bay area bart commuters navigate through crowded morning and evening commutes. 

Helping you make Smarter Decisions, on Bart

Problem. Plan Bay Area projects a 40% increase in jobs located in areas adjacent to BART stations. Based upon Plan Bay Area growth projections, BART estimates daily ridership of nearly 500,000 by 2025. Many daily bart commuters are already are already complaining about the uncomfortably crowded bart cars and unpredictable delays. Their current experience is unreliable, uncomfortable, and chaotic. During peak commute hours, the bart experience is one of the worst transportation experiences for daily commuters.  The more riders the bart service carries, the less predictable the transportation experience becomes. If bart does not improve its current experience, current passengers will decrease, and bart will become a less appealing alternative for potential new passengers. Passengers who shift from BART to private automobiles due to poor service would exacerbate congestion on highways that are already at capacity. This would increase vehicle miles traveled, leading to greater greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and respective losses in the Bay Area’s economic and environmental health. Diminished levels of BART service would have severe implications for the Bay Area’s transportation network.

The Opportunity: Bay area bart commuters need a transportation option that is less stressful because current public transportation solutions are uncomfortably crowded, disorienting, unreliable, and confusing. How might we give daily bart commuters a better sense of control in their public transportation experience through added reliability and predictability? 

The Solution: A transportation application that adds some predictability and reliability to your chaotic daily commute on bart. We add predictability by helping you navigate through crowds and find the least crowded bart car through real-time crowdedness metrics. We add reliability by notifying you about delays, alerting you when your stop has arrived, and helping you orient yourself through an interactive bart map. 

Design Process:

Step 1: Generative Research

We started off by doing some generative research to understand what "Mobility" means to people around Berkeley. We interviewed Berkeley and San Francisco residents who use bus, bart, biking, and walking to get around. For our initial round of research, we interviewed 10 people through intercept interviews near bus stops and train stations. For each participant, we tried to understand what their daily commute looks like, who they interact with, what they do and how do they feel on their morning commute? Additionally, I observed people waiting for bus and bart as they waited for their ride. We created an empathy map that visualize what we understood. 

We immediately noticed a few trends: 

Comfort and control in private vehicles add a freedom to a life with many stresses. People preferred personal transportation because they felt a greater sense of control and comfort. Besides the general feeling  of control you get when driving a car (the steering wheel, the speed), many mentioned that they liked controlling the music, knowing who was in the car, and again, having personal space. 

Loss of comfort and control in public transportation adds stress to an already stressful commute.  Bart was continuously mentioned as the mode of transportation where riders felt most out of control and least comfortable. 

 

Step 2: Descriptive Research

We dug into our interview data, conducted contextual inquiries on bart, observed people as waited for, boarded, and rode bart during their commute to and from work. We tried to understand the different decisions and pain points involved in planning and boarding bart, and what decisions made riders feel a loss of control. We discovered that the more people a mobility space service carries, the less control it offers the rider. This is the nature of carrying mass amounts of people. Here, Loss of control and loss of comfort leads to stress.

Bart riders felt most out of control during their morning and evening commutes from work.

Here are trends we noticed about the bart commute experience from our third round of user interviews:

Crowdedness: "We're packed into cars like sardines....and there's nothing to grab onto" Crowded trains are uncomfortable and chaotic. During peak commute hours, trains are least comfortable. This adds unnecessary stress to the riders who already have work to worry about. People are wondering where they can stand in the most comfortable position, and often have to push and shove to get to an exit or even enter. This leads to unwanted hostility and discomfort. 

Location Uncertainty: "I can't see where I am, sometimes I miss my stop and it's frustrating." Being stuck in the middle of a crowded train makes it difficult for riders to orient themselves. They can’t look out the windows, see the map, and hear the operator because they may be listening to music.

ETA Miscommunication: "Communicating my ETA is stressful, especially with bart delays and unreliable timings".  Overly crowded trains create more train delays for its riders, for passengers take longer to board the train and often cause technical difficulties by attempting to hold the door open. Communicating train delays can be stressful with unpredictable train delays.

 

Step 3: Ideation 

How Might We: Bay area residents and commuters need public transportation to be less stressful because it currently offers riders little comfort and control. How might we give Bay Area BART riders a better sense of comfort and control in their public transportation experience through added predictability?

Brainstorming: Though we can’t give riders direct control of the bart system, we can give riders a sense of control through added reliability and predictability. During three brainstorming sessions, we ideated 50 blue sky ideas we believed addressed user needs and increased predictability to riders morning and evening commute experiences. As a team, we voted on the top 4 ideas that we believed aligned with our prioritized user pain points. 

Storyboarding: We sketched out storyboards of the concepts and got feedback from a quick user study. We explored and storyboarded mobility solutions in-depth before arriving to our current solution.  

Our final solution is a mobile application that recommends the least crowded bart cars for your specific route (among other features). No one has brought crowdedness front and center in a bart mobile application before, though it is one of the primary pain points of daily bart commuters. We can help daily bart commuters predict or foresee problems, like crowded bart cars, in their morning commute. They can maneuver around them and make better decisions that will lead to less stressful mornings.  

Step 4: Paper Prototyping:

We designed storyboard and got feedback on a variety of concepts. After feedback, we finalized on three core features:

  1. Crowdedness metrics - We were inspired by a heat-map visualizations that can be created by detecting # of phones in specific cubic area. We wanted to help BART riders make smarter decisions based on the data we collected on the level of crowdedness on BART trains and cars.

  2. Real-Time Map - to orient and guide commuter through their journey.

  3. ETA communication - Help people coordinate their location with others.

After getting feedback on our storyboard/feature concept, we designed a paper prototype. We conducting one round of user testing with 5 participants using Marvel, a mobile application that allows users to quickly test interactive paper prototypes on the mobile phones. Below are some initial concept sketches to explore what UI elements were needed, placement, and flow of the application:

Step 5: User Testing & Iterating

We received positive feedback on our concept, but we discovered multiple usability issues. Users were confused by the overly cluttered screen and were unsure where to look.  Additionally, lists were difficult to digest for many users. Lastly, the crowdedness information was in the application but was often overlooked due to placement.

We incorporated feedback from our first round of user testing to design our next prototype (below) and conduct another round of user testing.