Making Public Transportation in Rural Central Texas Worth the Ride.
A more rewarding rider experience
Public transportation rides planned in rural areas with printed materials, environmental bus schedules, posted bus stops, and phone calls were adequate at one point in time. Even a burdensome digital experience seemed useful enough to get from point A to point B. However, today’s college commuters that ride CARTS daily, aka their “expert riders”, have more sophisticated transportation options. So, enough is no longer considered enough.
Client  Capital Area Rural Transportation System
Sector Public Transportation, Population Mobility
My Role Product Design, Research, Ideation, Visualization, Testing
Timeframe Two Weeks
It should be noted that this was a graduate school project to reimagine the rider experience for CARTs, a modest rural public transportation system serving one of the nation's fastest-growing regions in Central Texas. It was part of a UX design course that followed a strict Design Thinking & Human-Centered Design plan and was completed upon prototype user testing.
• • • • •
The Design Problem
Analog thinking was still driving
In just a few years, transportation options have exploded. By 2017, rideshare services such as Lyft and Uber were siphoning riders from municipal transportation at a rate of 1.7% for every year they’d been in operation. Despite being less affordable, the simpler digitally-driven user experience had fueled a trending change in rider behavior, especially among college students. 
At the same time, CARTS had a digital component that was still operating with analog thinking and struggled to offer the convenience of an Uber app. Complicated pdf-based scheduling, information overload, and impersonal service model, and a dwindling sense of incentive had the most dedicated CARTS riders preferring the rideshare alternative more and more often.
The 1990’s scheduling experience was a huge barrier.
• • • • •
The Design Opportunities & Challenges
Finding a new path toward rider loyalty
The project goal was to introduce a change to CARTS that simplified scheduling and built loyalty among daily college commuters. The original CARTS promise was still good: the service was relevant and needed, the schedules were dependable, and the actual ride ratings were high.
“…essential to my life’s success.”
Commuters still rated CARTS as “essential to my life’s success.” However, a more rewarding experience was also desired – one that met the expectations of today’s (and tomorrow’s) riders.
The high-level project goals were to:
- make CARTS easy to use for college commuters.
- create a delightful experience to ensure loyalty.
- expand the offering from doorstep to doorstep.
The CARTS digital scheduling experience was challenging to navigate on a mobile phone.
The Design Opportunities
1. Rideshare trends provided a clear path for change
2. CARTS paved a solid foundation for a digital upgrade
3. A fare system was already in place
4. All vehicles were aligned for personalized rides
5. The price for a course change was less than the return
6. Most college commuters were still onboard with CARTS
The Design Challenges
1. CARTS had to upgrade its thinking to match today’s digital 
2. Repatriating lost riders could be a dead-end
4. Analog riders could not be left behind
To understand the opportunities and challenges, I conducted my own secondary research; took facility tours and rides.
• • • • •
Interviews & Surveys
Ride-along on a country bus
With the knowledge of Design Thinking, CARTS scheduling procedures, and rideshare experiences, I interviewed 5 CARTS patrons, and reviewed over 50 social media comments and ratings posted by riders across Facebook, Yelp and Google.
The discovery goals:
-  Who are the daily college commuters using CARTS?.
- When, how and why are college commuters using CARTS?
- What do riders like about CARTS?
- What do CARTS riders think can be improved?
Key Insights & Discoveries
Insight #1
Most Riders were Running Late
Despite the common complaint that CARTS buses were “always” late, it appeared that following a schedule was a significant challenge for busy college commuters, as well. Poor planning by the riders commonly caused missed pick-ups and late arrivals.
“Poor planning by the riders… caused missed pick-ups and late arrivals.”
Insight #2
Too Many Paths to Make a Good Choice
CARTS’s dedication to meeting the service needs of a large area and diverse ridership had resulted in a complex system too difficult to navigate for the average rider. A static website with too much information and tons pdf downloads exacerbated the planning challenge riders.
“too much information and tons pdf downloads exacerbated the planning challenge…”
Insight #3
CARTS offers No Simple Way to Plan a Detour
Many commuters found CARTS services useful, however, the experience was not flexible. When rider plans changed mid-way, making an unplanned but necessary stop was not an easy decision. The challenging of scheduling a new route to the original destination was a daunting task.
“…expert riders need more incentive to choose CARTS… …a more meaningful connection.”
Insight #4
Loyalty is No Longer a Free Ride 
College commuter loyalty could no longer be taken for granted. There were too many alternatives popping up. Granted, few were as affordable as CARTS, but most were much more convenient and were trending toward becoming more affordable. So, expert riders needed more incentive to choose CARTS for their transportation needs.
• • • • •
Reframing the Problem
The CARTS scheduling support created a blindspot that overburdened the rider
CARTS online digital toolbox relied heavily on static pdf copies of printed schedules. Also, its site provided information about every aspect of each route making for a dense read on every page.
This approach placed a burden on busy riders with hectic lives. Plus, once an A-to-B trip was planned, any schedule changes would require a time-consuming work session to plan a new trip. If the new trip involved crossing service areas, then planning required expertise of the rider to know which route worked best or a call to the CARTS help line would be needed.
A journey map of two different CARTS  commutes, including a detour – the proposed CARTS College CO-OP and the current CARTS  experience.
So, the digital system meant to help was painful compared to the concierge-style experience of most rideshare services. The problem then begged the question, how might we help college commuters value CARTS more while lessoning the pain of planning a trip?
“…how might we help college commuters value CARTS more while lessening the pain of planning…”
My proposal was the College CO-OP, a digital trip assistant that rewards college commuters for riding with CARTS.
• • • • •
The Redesign
Introducing CARTS College-COOP
In an age where college students want apps that simplify all aspects of their lives, CARTS removes the hassles of the daily commute by making trip planning effortless, expanding their service beyond the bus stops, while adding tangible value. CARTS takes the wheel and personalizes commuter rides – informing college commuters in understandable ways that are convenient and actionable.
I used the current CARTS ID to develop the concept designs for a touchable prototype.
Just Tell us When and Where. We'll do the rest.
CARTS knows when it’s time to head out to the bus stop. It finds you the optimal pick-up spot based on who you are, where you are, and where you’re going. CARTS saves you time without you needing to memorize stops or dig through bus route maps.
People-friendly walking instructions help you better understand and identify your meeting spot – no missed pick-ups.
CARTS Reduces the Work in Your Work Commute.
CARTS introduces cashless payment. Use Go CARTS to pay with your mobile device. Boarding is faster, and a personalized account makes budgeting transportation expenses easier.
CARTS keeps you on schedule. You always know where you are and when you’ll get there – no more guessing about arrival times.
CO-OP Means Sweet Deals. CARTS Knows What You Love.
CARTS pays you to ride. Earn points through CARTS College CO-Op for a free ride or even free stuff from places you love conveniently located along your commute.
CARTS makes it easy to redeem your rewards and keep you moving. It even plans your detour, so you get to your destination on time.
Beyond the Bus Stop. CARTS Walks You from Door to Door.
CARTS doesn't stop at the bus stop. It optimizes your commute at every leg. People-friendly walking instructions help you get to your destination on time, even if you make a quick pit stop.
• • • • •
How We Arrived Here
Improving the CARTS experience
This project was assigned within a group session in which each participant arrived at a unique project conclusion. We applied an IBM-style design thinking process that also allowed for rapid design, concept, and testing. The initial step we took was to develop a set of basic questions to guide the design process.
Three primary questions informed my design strategy:
- How can public transportation be made delightful?
- How can the experience be more than just a ride between bus stops?
- How can we make riders trust any major change to their experience?​​​​​​​
The Five W's of CARTS
The next task was to understand CARTS and its users better. After an initial research phase, we mapped out the knowns using a 5w’s approach. 
We gathered this data through bench research.
Pros & Cons
A holistic review of the CARTS revealed both pro’s and cons about the real user experience both online and real facilities. 
We gathered this data through bench research, research rides and facility visits.
Persona Building, Empathy Maps, and Needs Statement
Interviews, surveys and secondary research revealed three basic CARTS users. Alexa, the newbie rider that was least informed on how CARTS works. Iris, the analog rider that relies on the CARTS helpline and printed materials to schedule rides. And, Paul, the expert rider that knows the system and is looking for more a convenient and helpful experience. 
We created the personas from a compilation of real data collected from interviewing several individuals and from reading dozens on posted comments and ratings on Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
I chose to design for Paul as the group focused on the other personas. To narrow the focus, we developed a needs statement, “Paul needs a hassle-free way to plan his trips from San Marcos to Bastrop every Monday and Wednesday so he can always get to class by 10 a.m. at Riverside Community College.”
“…needs a hassle-free way to plan his trips from San Marcos to Bastrop every Monday and Wednesday so he can always get to class by 10 a.m.…”
Card Sorting & Ideation Framework
Once the data was presented to the group, we conducted an ideation session of possible solutions that addressed different user needs. I then selected the ideas that best addressed Paul’s needs.
These concepts were the result of group ideation during our SPRINT session.
Minimum Viable Product Features
I then prioritized features that could realistically meet Paul’s wants and needs while expanding the CARTS service model within its existing resources.
I refined these ideas after the group session to prepare for Paul’s ride journey map.
Storyboarding a CO-OP ride
I created a storyboard of a new CARTS experience, highlighting the MVP features within the context of a realistic ride for Paul.
I tested the experience concept within our group and received feedback and suggestions and revised the experience.
The CARTS College CO-OP Journey
Based on testing feedback, I refined Paul’s trip from his home in San Marcos, Texas to his 10 a.m. class in the town of Bastrop. Despite the detour, CARTS continues to provide navigation and scheduling support to ensure that Paul arrives at his final destination on time.
I presented this more refined to-be journey to  individuals during the session and revised it per their feedback.
Rapid Prototyping & 5-Act Interview
I sketched out a prototype then conducted a 5-Act Interview with group members to test.
5-Act Interview Process:
1. I gave a friendly greeting
2. I asked open-ended questions about the customer
3. I introduced the prototype
4. I detailed a task to get the customer reacting to the prototype
5. I gave a quick debrief capturing the customer overarching thoughts and impressions
I presented this rough prototype to the individuals during the session and applied their feedback to the next iteration.
I aimed for Goldilocks Quality in the next prototype iteration. Although a pdf prototype, the goal was to collect valuable feedback, nonetheless.
I tested them on a mobile device by way of a full-screen pdf.
“Click” Tests
To quantitatively review the usability assumptions, I did simulated-click test using a mobile device, which confirmed my assumptions except for a few details. First and foremost, I tested the navigation structure on the mobile prototype, the people-friendliness of the map directions, the wording of some actions as well as preferences regarding the visual design.
Conclusion
CARTS and most public transportation services make the rider do the heavy lifting when it comes to scheduling their rides. CARTS impedes the rider decision-making process with information overload.
CARTS fully capable of offering a more meaningful and delightful experience. I tested a rewards program, but that’s only one possible option. There is much more opportunity as the public transportation experience is decades behind its alternatives.
A more personalized experience can revolutionize how riders interact with public transit. The mobility-limited public has relied solely on public transportation for decades; however, with rideshare companies’ ease-of-use approach to scheduling, the burden falls on CARTS to match or improve their ride experience.
As of 2018, when this project was last updated, CARTS had not made much progress toward improving its rider experience. 
As stated above, this was part of a grad-school Design Thinking exercise. The timeframe was short, and the process moved along briskly. However, my CARTS College CO-OP app addresses real problems currently experienced by the CARTS riding public. Especially for the expert CARTS user that is also a rideshare user. And, the ultimate value of this exercise was in my Design Thinking training which is a continued learning experience.
If there was more time
• I would like to have interviewed and surveyed more people to develop the personas. The purpose of this process was to understand quickly, prototype fast, and test immediately; however, spending more time to understand the users can only yield better results.
• It would have been more insightful to build a working prototype, to test during a ride-along with actual riders to further pinpoint real rider needs.
Learnings
1. There are solvable problems anywhere that you look. You just have to look.
2. The IBM Design Thinking methodology is a reliable tool for practical human-centered innovation. I am a convert.
3. As a career graphic designer, learning to let the design thinker’s idea of a sketch be the final visual has been a challenge. But I have learned that a more finished look to the artifacts can impact the testing in unexpected ways.
4. I have to practice my interview technique. It is a skill that requires mastery, and although I am proficient, it is still an intimidating step for me.