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Step 2: What (and When, and Where, and Why)?

What problems do Claire and Charlie need to solve, and what would they consider to be the characteristics of a good solution?

Riding the commuter rail is a repetitive kind of thing. Almost everyone travels from an outlying station into the city in the morning and returns to that same station in the evening. Our app needs to recognize and cater to this repetitive behavior.

It’s rare that a user will change stations, even more rare that he will change the line on which he travels. It happens occasionally—a guy will stay over at his girlfriend’s house and take a different train the next day—but not often. Our app needs to be able to handle changes, and make them as easy as possible on that user, but not at the cost of complicating the much more common case of “same old, same old.”

What do commuter rail riders need? More than anything else, they need to know when the trains will actually leave the station. Commuter rail is not like the subway or bus that comes along every few minutes. Commuter rail trains run every half an hour during peak times, and less frequently (an hour or two, sometimes longer) outside them. If you miss one, you might wait quite a while for the next one, and the stations (particularly inbound) are not at all comfortable.

How do riders know the schedule? Historically, the railroad has issued a printed timetable for each line (Figure 8.8). Riders have to pick up a copy, usually at the main station (where they’ve got scads for every line but yours), carry it with them, and then remember where they’ve put it and how to refold it. It’s inconvenient to read, because it covers all stations on a train line and you have to pick your specific station out of it. Charlie does this every time he travels, and it’s a pain. “The signal-to-noise ratio is low,” he says. (Geek.)

Figure 8.8

Figure 8.8 Confusing, inconvenient printed timetable. (Courtesy of MBTA)

It is not unusual that the rail schedule gets disrupted by weather or accidents or mechanical difficulties. Sometimes the delay affects just one line (a train on the Fitchburg line hits a truck), sometimes it’s all of them (a presidential visit snarls the entire downtown). Riders need to know about this so they can take an earlier train to work, or drive in if they have to, or pretend to work from home, or say, “To hell with it” and fake a case of smallpox to take a sick day. Obviously the paper schedule can’t tell us this.

The MBTA Web site could, but it has to cover an enormous array of topics—bus, subway, boat, and so on. It’s difficult to find the specific current information that you need even with a full-size Web browser on a PC. And we often don’t have access to a PC, for example, while we’re waiting on the suburban platform in blowing snow for a train that isn’t there. It’s almost impossible to use the MBTA site on the limited area of a mobile phone.

Riders also need help buying their tickets. A quick Google search finds that 57% buy monthly passes. The rest have a quandary. Most trips originate in the suburbs. Very few suburban stations today have staffed ticket windows, or even vending machines. Once in a while a nearby store will sell tickets as a convenience, but that’s increasingly rare. That was traditionally the domain of the local tobacco shop, where the riders would also pick up a newspaper and a pack of smokes for the ride. Those shops are just about all out of business today, along with the newspapers and the smokers. So most non-monthly-pass riders have to pay cash to the conductor on board. It would be nice to be able to buy tickets on demand, with credit cards.

Now that I had some handle on the problems that Claire and Charlie need to solve, I needed to ask other riders what they thought about the app. I needed to do this quickly, so I went to my local commuter rail station on a weekday morning and interviewed as many people as I could. Here’s what I said to them:

  • Tell me about your ride today.

  • What burns you the most about it?

  • How do you pay for your train ride?

  • What kind of smartphone do you have?

Note that I started with open-ended questions and moved toward more specific ones. Above all, I needed these interviews to be quick. The riders start gathering at the station only about ten minutes before the train arrives, and I needed to talk to as many as I could.

I found that most of the riders complained about not enough trains, because of cancellations. (We can’t really help them with that one.) Their second complaint, almost universal, was not knowing when the trains were running. They were angriest about the times the MBTA gave out wrong information. The Web site would say that a train was on time, the riders would go to the station, and the train didn’t come. They wait 15 minutes, half an hour, in their cars with the engines running; still no train. The electronic sign at the station claims that the train’s on time, but in reality it’s been canceled and the one behind it is two hours late and packed to the gills. While our app can provide the users with the information that they need, efficiently and in a pleasing format, we can’t repeal the zeroth law of computer science: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Our app is only as good as the information that the MBTA gives us to feed to it.

Hardly anybody talked about buying tickets. That wasn’t on their minds when I did this research. It might increase in importance as schedules returned to more normal conditions, but the riders weren’t thinking about ticket purchases when I asked them.

Riders look at schedules more often than they deal with tickets. Charlie buys a round-trip ticket once per day when he travels. Claire sets up a monthly pass with auto-renewal and then doesn’t touch it again. They display their tickets to the conductor once per trip, or twice per day, often not even that when the train is so crowded the conductor can’t get through to check. But they look at the schedule a lot: at least once or twice the night before, the same again in the morning, and the same again in the afternoon. Charlie will probably check it more often per day than Claire, who can settle into a routine. But they both need to know about any service disruptions.

So here’s what our users, Charlie and Claire, need:

  • Good, up-to-the-minute schedule info, including any changes

  • Good, easy ticket purchase and display

  • And all of it easy, easy, easy to use

Now that I knew what users needed, I started writing it up in the form of stories so that the geeks who would code this app can understand. Here’s what I wrote:

Story 1

Claire is at home in the evening, getting ready for work tomorrow. She doesn’t know what’s up with that stupid commuter rail schedule, due to all the snow they’ve had lately. She needs to know when the trains are running tomorrow, so she can know when to set her alarm for. She pulls out her Android phone, taps our app. The app sees that it’s evening and that she’s currently located in the suburbs. It knows from the pass she’s purchased which stations she travels from and to. So it automatically comes up showing the trains inbound from that station for tomorrow morning. (She can change that with a few taps in case it’s wrong, but it usually isn’t.) The app says that everything’s currently on schedule for tomorrow, but Claire doesn’t believe that for a microsecond. She sighs and wishes she could get a job locally and not have to deal with this damn commute. But she’s got seniority at her current job, her kids are headed toward college—she’s stuck with it for the foreseeable future. She sets her alarm clock early anyway and goes to bed.

Story 2

Charlie is at work in downtown Boston and his client invites him to stay in town for dinner. Of course he’d love to socialize with his client; that’s how he often hears about new business coming down the pipe. He needs to know the last trains of the day, so he knows when he has to leave his social engagement. He pulls out his latest iPhone (his customer’s eyes widen with longing) and taps our app. The app sees that it’s late afternoon, and its current location is in the city. So it automatically comes up with the outbound trains highlighted. It knows from the ticket he purchased this morning where he’s traveling to, so it shows the times for that line. There’s a train leaving North Station at 7:40 p.m.; that’s probably too early. He’d have to eat too fast and probably wouldn’t get around to the business discussion over coffee and brandy. The next one’s at 9:20, so he has time for a good outing. But the one after that leaves at 11:45. If he misses the 9:20, he’ll have to sit in North Station for two and a half hours—no fun at all. And if he misses the 11:45 train, he’ll have to take a $100 cab ride out to Ipswich, or sleep on the station benches. Charlie knows what his parameters are and goes off to his dinner meeting with confidence.

Story 3

Claire wakes up in the morning and turns on the coffeemaker. She looks out the window and sees some new snow. Damn! She pulls her phone off the charger, taps our app, checks to see if the train schedule has gotten even more screwed up. Double damn! It has! They canceled her regular train, but there’s an earlier one (actually an even earlier one that got delayed) that she can still grab if she hustles. She yells to her older daughter that she’ll have to get the younger ones out to the school bus, throws on her clothes, and runs out the door cursing the politicians who screwed up the transport network. But she makes her train, keeps her job, doesn’t even get her pay docked. She does have to pick up the load for employees who couldn’t get in until noon because they didn’t have our great app to warn them when their trains got screwed up. Fortunately, many of the patients got stranded, too, and missed their appointments, so the workload wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been. The outbound trains are also messed up, but at least she can see which ones are running. She’ll order pizza delivery for dinner tonight.

Story 4

Charlie needs to buy a ticket every time he takes the train in. There isn’t a ticket outlet near his stop. He used to need a $20 bill every day to buy it on board from the conductor. But now Charlie takes out his phone, taps our app, and buys a ticket, which he displays to the conductor. The bill goes to his credit card and appears magically under the “Travel” category when he downloads his transactions into Quicken. Charlie’s accountant is happy. Charlie is happy. The MBTA bean counters, who want to go cashless as soon as the politicians will let them, are happy too. The world is a better place all around.

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