Reimagining the Public Transportation Rider Experience for the Digital Age

Posted on July 19, 2017 by Paul McConnell - Also by this author

To stay relevant in an increasingly tech-driven world, transit authorities must find ways to anticipate and respond to riders’ needs, deliver efficient services, and provide the most helpful information throughout the transit journey.
To stay relevant in an increasingly tech-driven world, transit authorities must find ways to anticipate and respond to riders’ needs, deliver efficient services, and provide the most helpful information throughout the transit journey.
Transit is central to how we experience our cities. It is reflected in our stories, our films, and our music. From residents to suburban commuters to visitors from around the world, transit moves people, shapes our stories, and propels our cities into the future.

Now more than ever, transit is at a critical juncture. Infrastructure is aging, budgets are strapped, and systems are under pressure with increasing usage. In addition, customer expectations for a great experience have increased in all aspects of our lives because of technology.

To stay relevant in an increasingly tech-driven world, transit authorities must find ways to anticipate and respond to riders’ needs, deliver efficient services, and provide the most helpful information throughout the transit journey. This means looking at the challenges from the perspective of the rider.

Imagine a system that communicates clear, consistent, and relevant information across all displays, devices, and every mode of travel. Today, mobile devices, connected objects, and displays built on sophisticated platforms have the potential to achieve this vision and transform how we move through our transit spaces and cities.

The following article outlines some of elements impacting transit, an overview of how experience design trends might impact the transit journey, and some considerations for decision makers who are tasked with leading improvements.

Why Now? Here are the forces that are changing the way transit authorities approach service:

  • Higher expectations for services - Our relationship with technology, especially smart phones, has dramatically changed how we expect cities to function. The devices we carry with us are often our most trusted advisor. We now expect all services to understand our personal preferences and provide a simple intuitive experience.
  • Catering to a younger ridership - Millennials exhibit distinct transit behaviors, and are not as committed to personal car ownership as they were in previous decades, according to research by the American Public Transportation Association. Eighty-six percent of millennials ages 18 to 29 own a smartphone, and want to move freely between alternative transportation modes, such as bike- and ride-shares.
  • Real-Time and clear information - Systems are feeling the effects of centuries-old infrastructure, with derailments and accidents all too common in transit environments. Often, real-time or predictive data is not shared with riders. Information should be transparent with clear and actionable instructions when issues occur.

In transit, great user experience design is the difference between a system that people use out of necessity and one they actually prefer.
In transit, great user experience design is the difference between a system that people use out of necessity and one they actually prefer.

User Experience and Transit

User experience design is the study of people to design solutions that help them achieve goals. The field has gained popularity as service providers have realized that by improving design, they can help understand unmet customers needs or minimize confusion. This can lead to repeat usage, loyal customers, and brand advocacy.

In transit, great user experience design is the difference between a system that people use out of necessity and one they actually prefer. Poor design can take the form of illegible directional signage, unclear service alert instructions, or a display that provides irrelevant or outdated information.

Before setting out, designers seek to understand their users, their objectives, and the different contexts with which the service is being used. So what are the common scenarios riders encounter when moving across the system? Are they rushing through a station in order to catch their train, or are they a captive audience waiting at a platform? What are the forms of communication — like an interactive digital display, static poster, transit staff, or even a mobile app — with which riders are interacting?

When presenting content, regardless of the specific touchpoint, keep the following in mind:

  • The right channel for the right communication - Is the communication channel something that a rider can explicitly interact with, like a touchscreen kiosk or fare payment machine, or is the information for presentation purposes, such as an overhead arrival board? The most relevant content should match the channel based on rider and system needs.
  • Layout and visual design matters - In all communications, establishing consistency helps riders learn what to expect. Prioritize the location of content to highlight the most important information. Typography, grids, space, scale, color, and use of imagery do far more than please the eye. Each visual design element serves to guide the rider, establishing hierarchy, meaning, and focus.
  • Consistent and flexible brand voice - Any text or imagery should be familiar and straightforward, but the voice of the brand can be modified depending on the seriousness of the communication. Core transit information and directions should be brief, helpful, and confident. For transit etiquette or upcoming events, the voice can be more informal.
  • Use motion wisely - One of the most important differences between digital and static signage is the ability to show moving images. Motion should be meaningful and appropriate, serving to focus attention and maintain continuity. When poorly executed, motion can decrease visibility and readability, making content less effective.
  • Accessibility and inclusive design - Recent advances in technology have helped address the challenges of people of all abilities. Designed elements must be visually and digitally accessible in a format native to the user. More recently, the use of sensors and location beacons are being used to help those with visual impairments navigate through the system.

With the inevitable adoption of digital displays, smartphones, and connected objects, there’s an opportunity to provide riders with simplified instructions and transparency into all transit systems. Design and technology can enhance every moment of the journey, giving riders of every ability more confidence in the decisions they make along the way. These changes can help riders get to their destinations safely and comfortably, with more time to relax, look around, and enjoy the ride.

Paul McConnell, head of design at Intersection and author of Designing for Cities, explores how design and tech can reduce friction to enable a transit experience that is more reliable, safer, and efficient. 

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