A Case Study of Navigation Experience for Toronto Public Transit
Uncovering Pain Points and Developing Solutions through Extensive Research Methods
Jan - Apr 2023
Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Xd, Miro, Google Slides
As an international student living in Toronto, I've had my fair share of frustrations with the current public transit system. Questions like "Why is there no bus route map at the bus stops?" and "How am I able to check the details of my next transfer if I'm underground without wifi?" have plagued me since I arrived in the city almost a year ago. After realizing that I'm not alone in my frustration and recognizing the potential benefits of a well-managed public transport system, I set out to investigate how design could lower the navigational barriers that users face. My goal was to create a user-friendly experience that would encourage more people to use sustainable transportation means.
I followed the 5-step design thinking approach in this project:
DISCOVER > DEFINE > IDEATE > PROTOTYPE > TEST
According to Statistics Canada, Toronto has seen about 115 million passenger trips per month since the recovery from COVID. The average commuting duration for the employed labour force is about 30 mins per trip. While 30 minutes of travel time seems short and reasonable, and 115 million passenger trips seem like a lot, only 15.6% of the employed workforce uses public transport as their primary mode of commuting, with the vast majority using cars. The reason behind this is not hard to understand, and some of them may be shown here.
Opportunity for Design Intervention
A well-managed public transportation system has the potential to bring numerous benefits to the economy, the environment, society, and individuals. As a designer, I have begun to explore how design can play a role in reducing navigational barriers for transit users. I believe that upgrading navigation signage could greatly improve the user experience. Additionally, developing an integrated app for trip planning and service updates would be very useful for transit riders. Finally, station and platform accessibility should be enhanced to ensure that all types of passengers can travel safely and comfortably.
Assumptions, Biases & Challenges
In order to eliminate all biases and assumptions, I adopted different research methods and went on a site visit. Through this process, I hope to gain a complete understanding of the users' needs and navigation barriers and achieve a more comprehensive picture. Another challenge that I was facing was that I have limited knowledge of accessibility design. To address this, I conducted more research in this area and created a persona with accessibility needs to better understand the challenges faced by this group of users.
Survey Result and Insights
To further understand users’ frustration and remove my biases, I have surveyed 8 people of different employment statuses. The questions were designed to gather data on user demographics, their travelling habits and experiences, as well as their view on service information delivery.
After conducting a survey, I found that GO services perform better than York Region Transit and Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) in terms of overall travel experience. Among the frustrating experiences that users face, insufficient notices or announcements of service delays trigger the most anger, followed by difficult platform navigation and inaccurate next-service estimation.
The survey gave me a better understanding of the struggles and different pain points of users in their travel journey. It's essential that displayed service information is clear, understandable, and consistent. Failure of any one element can confuse users in their wayfinding, which is one of the biggest problems in current navigation design. The second problem is the lack of an official comprehensive platform to release service information. Users often need to plan their trips in advance through one or more third-party apps to have all the information they need for their trip.
The survey reinforced my original idea of mitigating navigational obstacles in a cost-efficient manner, which involves upgrading and adding signage in critical locations and improving special service announcements. Additionally, I gained insights into an alternative digital solution. Operators could adopt a low-budget approach to providing offline maps by displaying QR codes at stations that link to route maps and detailed information.
User Flow Chart
Before creating my persona, I created a user flow chart to ensure that I captured all the necessary steps that a user would go through when travelling from one location to another. I didn't want to overlook any small navigation touchpoints that users might encounter. This exercise was crucial in helping me develop a deeper understanding of the user journey, and it helped me identify potential pain points that could be addressed through my design.
To further refine my design, I created two personas - Ian and Margaret.
Ian is an international student who has been in Canada for a few months. He relies heavily on transit and is frustrated by service delays that cause him to run late for work or school. He wishes that operators could provide more accurate estimated time-of-arrival information and notices about service disruptions. Ian is comfortable with new technology and uses Google Maps, Moovit, Uber, and Lyft for trip planning.
Margaret, on the other hand, is a retired nurse in her 60s who loves exploring the city and trying new restaurants. Due to knee pain, she prefers using escalators and elevators instead of stairs, and she finds it frustrating when TTC's escalators break down. Unlike Ian, Margaret is not comfortable with technology and relies on signage and asking people for directions when she gets lost. She finds it annoying when she takes the wrong exit, especially those with stairs, as she has to walk a longer distance to reach her destination, which adds more burden to her knees.
Developing these personas has allowed me to better understand the pain points that users might encounter when using transit, and it has reminded me to add these points to my checklist for the site visit. By keeping these personas in mind during the design process, I can create a solution that addresses the needs of a diverse range of users, from tech-savvy students to seniors with mobility challenges.
User Journey Mapping
After creating two different personas, I moved on to mapping user actions and touchpoints to their pain points and possible solutions throughout the travelling stages from trip planning to reach the destination. One key insight was the need for more accurate and timely service updates, which could be addressed by utilizing LCD monitors to display next-service estimation and other important information. This approach would help users plan their journey more effectively and reduce the stress and frustration that can arise from unexpected delays or disruptions.
Prior to conducting a site visit, a checklist was created based on the guidelines set by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). The NACTO is an association of 93 major North American cities and transit agencies that provides comprehensive studies and guides on street, bikeway, and transit design. Their suggestions were found to have great reference value for the study.
In addition to the checklist, the survey findings and personas created were also used to focus on the clarity, understandability, and consistency of the navigation design, as well as the incorporation of accessibility elements. The site visit helped to clear up many biases and assumptions, such as the difficulty of getting a Presto card, which had been resolved through upgrades to the machines and the ability to purchase cards more easily. However, the site visit also revealed surprises, which will be discussed in the following section.
Are signage and wayfinding cues easily noticeable?
Several navigation issues were identified during a site visit to TTC. One major concern was the confusing system route map, which uses red lines for both streetcar and bus services, making it difficult to differentiate between the two and locate starting and terminal stops. Additionally, many bus stops and streetcar stops lack route maps, and the displayed maps often only show stops with major connections rather than the entire route, making them less user-friendly.
Is signage easy to read and understand?
Temporary service notices can be difficult to understand, even for regular users of the TTC. Notices that without visual expressions can cause frustration for riders. Grouping of information is also important for effective wayfinding. Cluttered and disorganized signage can make it difficult for riders to find the information they need, leading to confusion and delays. The use of user-friendly language is also crucial in ensuring that all riders can easily understand signage and instructions.
Is signage design consistent?
TTC's inconsistency in its signage can be a major source of confusion for riders, particularly for those who are new to the system. The use of outdated or inconsistent signage can make it difficult for riders to locate key information and can result in riders making incorrect or inefficient travel choices. Investing in the cleaning up and standardization of signage across the entire TTC network would greatly enhance the user learning curve and reduce confusion for rider.
To what extent are facilities incorporated with accessibility design thinking?
While TTC provides accessible features such as elevators, tactile signage, audio announcements, and priority seating for passengers with disabilities, TTC should invest in providing a seamless accessible user journey so as to reduce redundant accessible signage. For example, if all routes are designed in a step-free concept with a ramp or portable wheelchair stair climber, many signs for wheelchair access are no longer needed. Also, if a specific entrance lacks accessible facilities, alternative accessible options should be advised at the entrance to reduce barriers.
Ideate & Prototype
During the ideation stage, I conducted research on subway signage design in other cities around the world to gain inspiration and ideas. Through this research, I was able to identify a few key areas where the TTC could improve their own wayfinding signage.
One area for improvement was to adopt an alphabetical system for exit naming, instead of continue using the current system which has no clear organization. I also noticed that other subway systems often included important information, such as exit names, connections, and accessibility information on exit signage, while less important information, such as station facilities, was indicated in separate maps or signage. Additionally, I observed that accessibility information was often not specific enough on TTC signage, and could be improved to provide more detail about what types of accessibility features are available at each exit.
Physical Solution - Redesigning Route Map, Signage and Station
A New Design for TTC Bus Stop and Route Map
A New Design for TTC Streetcar Stop and Route Map
A New Design for TTC Subway Exit Wayfinding
Digital Solution - Developing an Integrated App
During the initial survey conducted at the beginning of the project, it was found that transit riders had a strong desire for trip planning features that could provide them with accurate estimates of travel time. They also wanted to be presented with multiple route options to choose from, along with strong searching and filtering functions to help them find the best route for their needs.
In addition to trip planning, wayfinding within the station was also an important concern for riders, with many wanting access to exit guides and station level maps to help them navigate through the station.
Riders also expressed a need for real-time service information, including details about temporary routing changes, service interruptions, and suspension updates.
Lastly, riders wanted access to fare information that could provide a breakdown of the fare for the entire trip, ensuring transparency and clarity about the cost of their journey.
The testing results showed an overall positive rating for the app's ability to represent service direction and provide a complete route map, as well as relevant information. Testers appreciated the idea of scanning a QR code to obtain real-time service estimations and route maps on their phones. Many testers reported feeling more confident when travelling with the new route map design.
There were some suggestions for improvement, such as including connection information for express services in the middle of the map, placing the QR code at the bottom for easier scanning, and improving the overall clarity of the layout. Some users also revealed that it was easier for them to understand the geography and navigate with the street names that were only in the original design
Feedback on New Route Map Design
Feedback on New Bus Stop & Streetcar Stop Design
The testing results showed that the new bus stop and streetcar stop design, with a larger stop name on top, was well-received by testers. This design made it easier for pedestrians to locate the correct bus stop from any direction.
Testers also appreciated the use of LCD monitors to display travel information instead of advertisements.
Some testers suggested including all operator logos on the bus stop signage when the stop serves multiple operators.
Feedback on App Prototype
The testing results showed that the app prototype was easy to navigate and visually appealing for most testers, with the layout and features making sense. However, some testers expressed a desire to see all transit route maps on the interactive map layer. Although this function was available in the app, testers were not aware of it, and they had to be referred to the layer button on the home screen. To address this issue, it is suggested that the button should be made more obvious to users.
Conclusion & Reflective Practice
The five-stage design thinking process and various research methodologies were utilized to gather valuable insights for designing solutions for Toronto's public transit riders throughout this project.
The biggest challenge faced was managing the project scope, which was overcome through the discovery stage's survey, revealing TTC as the operator that passengers were most dissatisfied with. This allowed for a focus on redesigning TTC's signage, route map, and stations in later stages of the project. The site visit was especially useful in clarifying assumptions about TTC's continuously-improving premises and vehicles.
However, the testing stage proved to be the weakest part of the process due to a lack of time for planning and preparation. To improve in the future, more time will be allocated, and planning ahead will be prioritized to ensure that the testing stage receives adequate attention.
This project provided valuable experience in identifying and addressing user pain points comprehensively, while also highlighting the importance of project scope management and proper testing. I found this project particularly meaningful as it aimed to solve a real-life problem for visitors and newcomers like myself. I hope that the solutions proposed in this project will contribute to improving the wayfinding experience for public transit riders in Toronto and make their journeys more efficient and enjoyable.
Lastly, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my UI/UX professor, Brandon Laird, for his invaluable support and guidance throughout the project. His feedback and encouragement have been instrumental in shaping the project's direction and ensuring its successful completion.