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Case Study: Commuter Rail Mobile App

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David Platt demonstrates how the UX skills presented in The Joy of UX all work together by showing how to design a new mobile app for Boston’s commuter rail system.

This chapter is from the book

Now that you’ve seen each UX design step individually, let’s see how they all work together. In this chapter and the next, we’ll do a case study on a real-world problem, applying our new skills and techniques end to end.

We’ll start with a mobile phone app aimed at easing the daily grind for commuter rail riders. We’ll focus on Boston’s system, because we can easily find specific details and riders to work with. When we start applying what we’ve learned, you’ll see that we can make things a whole lot better than they currently are.

Pity the Poor Commuter

The commuter rail system in the Boston area is owned by a state agency officially named the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), universally called “the T.” It serves approximately 130,000 riders each weekday over ten lines, 394 miles of track, and 127 stations. It’s the third-largest such system in the United States, behind New York City and Chicago, tied with Philadelphia.

The T got absolutely hammered by record snowfall in the winter of 2015. Trains were canceled, rescheduled, and canceled again, while cold riders shivered on windswept station platforms, fuming, “Where’s Mussolini when we need him?” The director of the system resigned under fire, “for personal reasons.” (I say she jumped while being pushed.)1

We can’t make the trains run on time. But we can tell the riders when they actually are running—the true up-to-the-minute performance, not the wishful thinking of a paper schedule printed months before. We can smooth out our riders’ lives. They’ll know when to leave their homes or workplaces for the station, they won’t waste time trying to catch a train that isn’t running, and they’ll be able to schedule their lives again.

The second need of commuter rail passengers is help with buying their tickets. They have to wait in line at the very few staffed ticket windows (fewer when the weather is bad, as the government employees stay home) or use the few available vending machines, which are always broken anyway. This extends their already-annoying commute and causes them stress. It would be great if we could make that go away too.

Can we make use of our new skills and knowledge, the steps we’ve seen in this book, to make their lives easier with a well-designed mobile app?

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