CTA Commuter
An academic UX-design sprint with Rachael Forster and Grace Lee for the Chicago Transit Authority, the operator of mass transit in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, which includes the trains of the Chicago "L" and bus service. Tools included Sketch, Axure, InVision, and Photoshop.
The challenge: How might we help CTA commuters identify delays and slowdowns, find alternative routes, and through transparency offer flexible solutions?
Our solution: We designed a mobile app that sends commuters customized notifications about relevant delays as early as possible to allow for meaningful alterations.

The Challenge

The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) is the primary operator of mass transit in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, which is used by over a million commuters per day. However, with a 4.6% decrease in ridership year over year, reported at the end of 2016, the CTA has started to look at digital solutions to improve their offerings to for the customers. There has been some progress with a recent release of a digital product, but the current offering has been criticized as not being responsive or useful to riders.

The CTA knows it can’t always avoid all delays and interruptions and so we were prompted with an academic exercise to create a digital product that is able to identify slowdowns and problems, help riders find alternate routes and through transparency and offering flexible solutions help increase customer satisfaction.
With a daily ridership over a million, the CTA is one of the world's most used public transit systems.
I. Research


As a team completely comprised of members unfamiliar to Chicago, none of us brought significant experience with exposure to the CTA and its infrastructure to the table. However, with such minimal prior experience, my team was able to start at ground zero with no preconceived assumptions, and cast a wide net to see what we would be able to uncover. With this research, our goals was to gain a better understanding into the following:
Delays that commuters faced with the CTA
How users dealt with delays and commute problems
Services that commuters use for their commutes
The first step for our team was to start empathizing with our users by getting out and start talking to them. We decided to approach our problem by focusing on users who used the CTA as their main mode of transportation for their commutes, and this included young working millennials to older individuals who worked in the Chicago region. For our SMEs (subject matter experts) we selected a Customer Service Specialist from the CTA and a Communications Manager from the RTA (Regional Transportation Authority) as we found that they had insight into how commuters used the CTA on daily basis.
With our interviews, we began to learn about patterns and trends around commuter behaviors which allowed to empathize with our users on a more personal level

USer Insights

Insight #1
Users don’t check for delays before their commute. Instead of checking for delays before their commutes, users risked getting caught in a delay by relying on their personal experience to determine the state of their commute ahead of them.
“I don't check before I leave for work to see if there's going to be a delay. I just get on the train and hope for the best.”
– Lei Lei, 27
Insight #2
Available information on delays are not being utilized by users. Our SME confirmed that there was relevant delay information available, especially on their twitter, but as we dug deeper into that, we found there was a minimal penetration of usage of the delay information.
“The best way for riders to find out about delays is to follow the CTA or RTA on Twitter... I think riders are satisfied with receiving updates via Twitter.”
– Tim, SME
Insight #3
Users want to be notified of delays. Nearly everyone CTA commuter expressed that in the event of a delay occurring, they want to be notified before getting caught in the delay.
“When a line is shut down because of a mechanical issue or whatever reason, it'd be nice to be notified of that before instead of you waiting on the platform to hear what happened.”
– Einstein, 27
Insight #4
Users tend to respond to delays in two different ways.
Active approach – Upon experiencing a delay, these user will make an effort to find an alternate route to expedite their commute.
“After 10-15 minutes if there is no bus or no train then I find a Plan B. Plan B is usually Uber.”
– Jenn, 25
Passive approach – Upon experiencing a delay, these users tended to stay put and wait out the delay until it was resolved or they were forced to find an alternate.
“If there is a delay, I'll just wait it out at the train station. I don't really mind and there's rarely a delay long enough that I'm forced to find another way.”
– Richard, 52
With these takeaways, we began to see a common narratives the commuters faced. And with them expressing a desire to avoid delays, we posed the question: “Are there any services that help commuters learn about delays and allow them to make changes?”


With those frustrations in mind, we dove into the competitive landscape to see what sort of services were available to the daily CTA commuter. We selected a handful of direct competitors that were more commonly used and highlighted in our user interviews. Our indirect competitors were drawn as services that weren’t quite dedicated to transit navigation, but provided relevant information to users.
With so many competitors leaning towards more experienced users, we found that Clickx aimed to be in a void where there were really no other players.
With so many competitors leaning towards more experienced users, we found that Clickx aimed to be in a void where there were really no other players.
From the competitive analysis, we found that nearly all services shared a commonality: Information on delays and interruptions are readily available. Most services even provide alternate routes in the event of them actually occurring.


From our research, we started to paint a clearer story of the pain points and common problems the users experienced during their commutes, and this lead us to pose a question:


In our initial competitive analysis, we looked only at basic services that competitors provided. But with the above question, we revisited the landscape to identify any other products that provided users information of delays beforehand. From this we uncovered two points that revealed to us the essence of the problem at stake:


As we began to narrow into the problem, we identified two distinct user personas that experienced problems on their commute but reacting differently when confronted with a delay.
Zach represented a more young tech-savvy user, who has significant experience using apps such as Google Map. Upon experiencing a delay on his commute, Zach takes proactive steps to help alleviate the situation, usually opting for an Uber or Lyft. We had Zach as our primary persona due to his dependence on the CTA and desire to avoid any delays that may affect his daily commute.

On the other hand, we had Anne as our secondary persona. She was a more complacent commuter, meaning that when approached with a delay, she notified any relevant people of her delay and likely wait until the situation was resolved.


The challenge at this point was to determine exactly when delay information was most relevant and useful for our users. It was confusing to organize exactly what sort of information was helpful for users at different times. To help us navigate our way through that, we mapped out a journey map to help us pinpoint our areas of opportunity.
From our mapping, we partitioned out where information on delays was most relevant and important. We found that after a commuter got to the train station and experienced a delay, they were caught in a state of “delay limbo” with minimal opportunity to make any significant changes to their commute. We identified the area before they got to train station as an area of opportunity for commuters to make meaningful changes to their commute beforehand.


Our goal at this point was to narrow down our focus on the problem we could design for. In an industry where we revealed a large disconnect, we realized how important it would be to pinpoint a clear and specific problem to ensure we were addressing the right users with a relevant solution.
The Problem
Rather than check ahead, CTA commuters rely on personal experience and risk encountering a delay. As a result, they learn of interruptions after it is too late to alter their route.

Commuters need an effortless way to learn about relevant delays as early as possible so they can find alternative solutions before those delays impede on their daily goals.
Design Guidelines
Alongside our problem statement, we outlined several design guidelines to help us keep our design solutions backed by the research and in scope of the problem.
Our experience design should fit seamlessly into the user's routine. They should not have to go looking for the information. It should be available when they need it.
The design should use relevant data to assist the user in navigating their daily commute by giving them information about interruptions as early as possible.
Attention grabbing
The design should draw attention to itself so users realize there is an alteration to their daily routine.
II. Conceptualizing Ideas


With a problem and design outlined, we began to ideate on solutions. We started off by categorizing delays to help indicate what sort of options commuters had in each one.
We then jumped into brainstorming ideas and sketching potential solutions to help us select what concepts to build out and test with users.
Our numerous rounds of brainstorming and sketching helped us explore a wide realm of potential solutions without having to invest too much time into building out high fidelity models.
At this point, we proceeded with three design concepts and moved forward to flesh them out and test them with users.

CONCEPTS & Feedback

Concept 1: Push Notifications
Push notifications on the lock screen to give information quickly and offer actionable options
Users are brought to a delay info page upon clicking on an alert or notification
This concept was a mobile service that lets riders receive relevant push notifications about delays/interruptions in their daily commute as early as possible to provide actionable options to alter their route, change their departure time, or adjust their schedule, if necessary.
Note: I took lead in designing the push notification concept. Our research revealed to us the importance of having a proactive and attention-grabbing service, and I felt push notifications about relevant delays would be able to best serve that need. Push notifications had the potential to deliver information quickly and efficiently, and ultimately reduce the need to manually go into the app unless necessary. I focused on looking at the different type of notifications available in Material Design and explored different information hierarchy to see what sort of information users wanted to see the most.
“I really like that I can set when I am going to be notified. I get too many from a lot of apps but I would like being able to control when I get them.”
– Huong, 29
While people saw the value of having push notifications, they expressed that they had to be relevant and helpful to their route navigation. With delays being a common occurrence for the CTA as a whole, users noted that they only wanted to see the delays on the routes they used for their commute, and not see irrelevant information. Several users even pointed out the potential of being bothered in the event of too many notifications.
Concept 2: Widget
Commuters are prompted with a selection of possible widgets to add
The widget lives on the homescreen and serves as a glanceable feature
This concept was a widget-based app that shows users the status of their commute and favorite lines so they can evaluate alternative routes based on time and cost, if needed.
“I would like to see how long until my train is going to arrive or my total commute time.”
– Zach, 27
There was a clear difference in the response to this concept, which depended on whether the user was an Android user or an iOS user. The Android users were familiar with the widget concepts already, so they saw a lot of value behind having a widget notify them of their commute on their homescreen. iOS users on the other hand were less familiar with widgets, and in turn did not see as much value, but still had a generally positive reception to the concept.
Concept 3: Crowdsourcing
Users are given the option to confirm or refute claims of congestion on their route
Upon experiencing congestion, users are able to report it to notify other users
This concept was a mobile app provides the latest delay updates and transit statuses based on real-time, community based sharing of information.
“The live information is really great for anyone, especially in the instance of a Cubs game, it’s nice to know how busy the train is.”
– Ben, 26
Synthesizing the feedback for the crowdsourcing data proved to be quite difficult for us. While several users expressed positive feedback for it, there were a handful of users that told us explicitly that they would not use the feature. With such binary feedback, we found ourselves a bit confused on how to move forward with it.


After getting feedback from our concept testing, we proceeded to look into the usability testing to uncover what sort of issues users would run into. From that we pulled out two main areas of needed iteration and improvement.
Our language wasn’t intuitive to our users (ambiguous use of “ETA“ or “Traffic“ v. “Congestion“)
Information Hierarchy
Push notifications and the widget needed to more prominently show commuter information important to them.


As we started going through our feedback, users consistently mentioned that they didn’t really care about the delay itself, but rather how their commute was affected. Simply put, to them, a “delay was a delay”, and nothing more. In this round of our designs, we were pushing for too much information around the delay, and our users pushed back on that. The real important information they desired was the consequences of the delay. Now this may have seemed obvious in retrospect, but stumbling upon this insight at this point allowed us to revisit our designs and shift our solutions to being more commute centric, rather than delay centric.
“To me, a delay is a delay. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scheduled or unexpected delay. All I want to know is how it will affect my commute.”
– Zach, 27
III. Iterating and Converging


At this stage, we utilized our feedback to help us iterate our designs into a more cohesive and integrated prototype. We imagined our solution in these three different states, each providing the user with a different means of actionable options.
With that we placed push notifications and the widget as primary features, and shifted crowdsourcing into a secondary feature. With our primary focus on giving the users a predictive and proactive solution, the push notifications and widget needed to live as the most prominent feature. We included an onboarding portion to help users setup their preferences. Crowdsourcing, while providing relevant information, didn’t necessarily add to the predictive nature of the feature so we shifted it to a lower priority in our solution.
This led us to our final prototype, a result of research and numerous rounds of iteration.
IV. Final Design


CTA Commuter is a mobile app that sends commuters customized notifications about delays/interruptions as early as possible allowing them to alter their route, change their departure time, or adjust their schedule, if necessary.
V. Next Steps & Recommendations


Given our unfamiliarity with CTA, I felt great about what my team was able to achieve with our final prototype. We uncovered a common pain point that CTA commuters experienced and design a useful and meaningful product.

Our research and designs were selected and passed onto a UI design team for them to develop and flesh out.


Continue to test the viability of the crowdsourcing concept
Without ample time to take the crowdsourcing feature further, I felt that our team was unable to really flesh out this concept to make it more meaningful and usable.
Education content strategy
With our two different users having drastically different needs and responses to delay, it would be interesting to ideate around different settings depending on the user. Features such as inputting complicated schedules to having different amount of smart recommendations could potentially affect how users interacted with the product.
VI. Beyond the project

What i learned

As my first major design project, this was an extremely valuable experience for me to learn how to more comfortably implement design thinking into my process. As we tested and iterated rapidly, learning to let go of my personal desires and become a stronger advocate of the user was a crucial stepping stone for me to take. My team was able to work smoothly the more we embraced changes and pivots as a natural occurrence in this process. Even when faced with issues like revisiting the competitive analysis, or redefining our insight story, taking those challenges with an open mind helped me to take more ownership of my design process and proved to be a successful learning experience for me.
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