Simplifying public transit

Many of the world’s major cities use a smart card payment system on their transport networks. Hong Kong has the Octopus, Chicago uses Ventra, and London has the Oyster. So when Metrolinx – an agency of the Government of Ontario created to provide a more connected transit system for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the Ottawa region in Canada – selected us to help rollout a similar program for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the final destination was clear. The challenge was getting there.

As North America’s third largest public transit system, the TTC serves 1.8 million riders on streetcars, buses and subway trains each day. The system has evolved organically over the last 90+ years, so fares today are collected through a variety of payment methods with different ticketing systems, technology and business requirements. Tying them together in one seamless system was going to be a tall order.

To add to this complexity, Metrolinx and the TTC had very ambitious accessibility standards to meet, some tough performance targets, and an overriding commitment to providing the best possible service standards to their customers.

Our role in this project was clear: to make sure this complexity wasn’t passed on to the rider. The solution had to work as efficiently and intuitively as possible from day one, and we knew it would take the full range of our design knowledge to make it succeed. So let’s take a closer look at some of the key themes that emerged throughout the course of the project.

Environment is everything

Unlike many services we work on, customers don’t experience public transportation from a computer at home or an app on their smart phones. So a huge number of environmental factors came into consideration: sunlight causing reflections on-screen in the summer, trying to operate buttons with gloves in winter, behavior issues when a long queue builds up behind you, a noisy street making audio instructions hard to hear, etc. The list went on. And getting out and experiencing the network for ourselves was the only way to truly understand all of these factors. So we ran multiple research trips on different lines at various times of day and year to make sure we really knew what it was like to be a regular customer.

The physical/digital experience

The interplay between the physical and digital worlds was another interesting aspect of this project. Once we understood the environmental conditions, we began to design the devices that customers would use to pay their fares. To properly simulate real-world payment scenarios, this meant building full-scale prototypes with the correct hardware and basic software to help us understand the ergonomics and usability. The team iterated through numerous rounds of design for both hardware and software to achieve the final solution.

Don't make me think

Public transport is inherently utilitarian. People want to get from point A to point B with as little fuss and complexity as possible. This is easier said than done in a system where, in addition to smart cards, riders expect the ability to use many forms of payment. And it’s also in a region where people speak more than 200 languages. In order to make payments simple, we focused on reducing “cognitive load” – the brainpower required to complete transactions. This meant breaking transactions down into smaller steps and designing a user interface based around simple choices aided by easy-to-understand illustrations and on-screen controls. With this approach we dramatically reduced the average transaction time and virtually eliminated the failure rate.

Creating a universal user experience

The TTC has been focused on system accessibility for decades, and accessibility was a major driver of this initiative. Metrolinx and TTC were both committed to achieving “universal design” – going beyond mandated compliance and aspiring to build a system that is usable by everyone. Helping to achieve this goal, and designing for a public service that is so critical to many people’s lives, was a challenge that we took very seriously. To address the highest standards possible, we worked closely with accessibility experts and advisory committees on every aspect of the system, from on-screen user interfaces to signage, labeling, control panels and even audio-only modes for the visually impaired.

Guessing isn't good enough

Designing for purely digital services usually allows for a certain amount of iteration and improvement after launch.  But that was not the case here because we were manufacturing and deploying physical devices. With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a system of this scale, we simply couldn’t afford to be wrong with our solutions. So we tested early and often, beginning with hallway testing in the studio before moving on to rigorous lab-based usability testing sessions as well as a range of co-creation and validation activities with real customers. At every stage, we turned insights into improvements until we had average transaction times down to mere seconds with success rates approaching 100 percent.

The hard work paid off

This was a special project for Fjord – both in its complexity and the range of design skills employed. Designing for physical and digital interaction on this scale is hugely challenging but our iterative “make-to-learn” approach paid off and stands as further evidence of our commitment to building and testing as part of good design.

By the end of 2016,  the smart card payment system we helped create will be in service across Toronto’s subway, bus, streetcars and commuter rail stations, which will help residents and their visitors move more efficiently and easily through the city for years to come.