Redesigning the Bus Experience

Caroline Song
22 min readNov 15, 2019


Caroline Song, Elizabeth Han, Stefanie Suk, Yoshi Torralva | HPW Fall 2019

The Prompt

No matter what kind of designer you are and what you are designing, whether it be products, communications, environments, systems, or services, you will always be designing for people, for interaction. So far throughout the semester, we have learned about how people work through their emotions, thoughts, actions, etc. to better understand how to design for our audience. Part of the way we studied people include how do we study people using research methods and therefore, how people interact with our designs. During this project, we were required to choose an area in our local CMU community to re-design, whether that be a physical or social artifact/space. Using research methods we had been familiarizing ourselves with the entire semester, we were to go through the process of gathering data and using our findings to produce a redesign of the artifact, space, service, or interface we chose.

The Question

To start off our project, we came up with a couple “how might we…” questions in order to further understand that specific area of redesign we wanted to tackle and identify exactly what problem we were trying to achieve and solve in our redesign process.

The broad area our group wanted to design for was the idea of student wellness in their exposure to non-monotonous surroundings. We wanted to design to allow students to gain more exposure to other people and in that, an increase in social pollination.

We began with a general problem area of student wellness. We thought of general ways that students take to destress, including going off campus for new opportunities, meeting people of diverse backgrounds, etc.

We then identified hurdles in the process for students to seize those opportunities for increased wellness. We narrowed down to transportation, seeing as the lack of visible opportunities for students to experience off-campus “fun”, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, tend to prevent students from accessing joyful opportunities. While student wellness is quite difficult to measure, measuring participation in the system is pretty easy. Perhaps we could create a crowdsourced resource for people to know where to go when they want a break from school. Perhaps there is a way we can design a system which can go beyond what Yelp and simple word of mouth does.

Though we as a group knew we wanted to focus on the problem of Pittsburgh public transportation, these “how might we…” questions allowed us to determine what specifically we wanted to focus on in the transportation system. It also helped us contain our broad idea to a single question we could move forward with and answer.

  1. How might we allow students to feel more at ease when exploring Pittsburgh via public transportation?
  2. How might we allow students to feel more optimistic when exploring Pittsburgh via public transportation?
  3. How might we encourage and enable students to explore local activities through public transportation?

We settled on focusing on the first question because looking at past experiences and drawing from personal knowledge, it seemed like a common problem that students had with the transportation system was the lack of trust in the system and therefore, that transferred to a negative perspective in regards to public transportation. In answering our question and moving forward with our redesign, our group found that we wanted to change the negative view public transportation held in many students and fuel more trust into the system in order to allow the students to feel more comfortable and at ease using public transportation.

Stakeholder Mapping

Taking a step back and looking at this problem, our group found that we did not know where to begin uncovering and researching the transportation system. Stakeholder mapping is an exercise we were all familiar with due to our past exposure in Systems class last semester. In revisiting this activity during class, we were able to ground ourselves in what we were familiar with and grow our research questions and discoveries from there.

Through our mapping, our team was able to discover the three main areas of stakeholders of people that are affected by the public bus transportation, in order to better understand who to design for and what areas will redesigning the system impact. We found direct (internal), indirect (external), and connectors (connecting between internal and external) stakeholders. The main internal stakeholders made up our local CMU community while the external stakeholders included organizations such as the CMU Hub and the Pittsburgh Transportation Department. And our connectors were companies such as Port Authority, Google Maps, Uber, and Lyft.

Initial stakeholders map

As we discussed our stakeholder map further, especially in the perspective of students who have gone through freshman year and learning the bus system in various ways, we were able to find the root of the problem we wanted to design for. The lack of understanding in time available to go off campus/location safety/bus routes.

We looked at how easily users of the transportation system, specifically students, can access information regarding the bus.

  • Information in regards to the bus routes (what do the different buses mean? how many transfers do i need to make in order to get to where i need to go?)
  • Discrepancy in perception of how much time users believe it takes to destination, as well as back versus how much time it actually takes to get there.
  • Knowing the number of bus stops near the destination.

Our group also thought about other public transportation systems we have experienced in the past and what designs we noticed and work in making the ride more efficient.

  • Recreating the bus route map for clarity in understanding.
  • The idea of having bus routes both on phone and inside bus.
  • Haptic nudge when you’re near the desired location/transfer station.
  • Cohesive design system both on phone and inside buses indicating routes.
  • Real time bus route map on bus, so that users know where they are in relation to desired destination.

The Research Proposal

Our next step was to create a research proposal, answering all the logistical questions as to how, when, where, and etc. we will be going about conducting our research.

Research proposal presentation

After presenting our proposal to our professors and the class, we were able to receive feedback as to how to further tighten our proposal and research methods as we begin to collect data:;

  • While our framing of the problem is good, what are people really looking for in transportation? Is it really efficiency? is it reliability?
  • There’s a lot of engineering approaches to make the bus system more “efficient”, but we are taking a more human-centered approach to understand the underlying motivations behind people’s choices toward transportation.
  • Stakeholders — external and connecting are a bit questionable: Connecting: CMU orientation may not be the first group to go towards…External: Port Authority? There’s only so much that we can do to change the external stakeholders.
  • Our research methods are in place, having the comparison between the ideal and current bus experience through people’s drawings will be strong. Especially for the final presentation: this will show what people actually want.
  • Think about conducting diary studies, how do people make transportation choices throughout the week?
  • Interview people that are NOT at bus stops, but rather waiting for their Lyft/Uber ride. They are the people we are trying to target our design towards. Ask what are the reasons these people choose alternative transportation methods?

First Round of Collecting Research

Mulling over the feedback we received on our research proposal, we were able to further grasp what stakeholders were the most important in regards to our goal to use a human-centered approach to redesign a portion of the bus system. We definitely knew that the local CMU community made up the majority of the internal stakeholders, both students and faculty/staff. We decided to start there and conduct student interviews around campus in order to begin our research. Once again, because we wanted to come at this problem through a human-centered way, we wanted these interviews to consist of questions that directly asked them what they thought of the bus system and what things they would change about it. Furthermore, we also wanted to make sure to get a wide range of interviewees, those who rode the bus often versus not at all, freshmen to seniors, etc. in order to gain the broadest perspective of the campus’ opinion.

We started together as a group, splitting up into pairs and specifically trying to interview people waiting both the bus stop in front of Tepper and the one in front of Cohon University Center. From there, we decided to talk to various other students around campus, especially those who were waiting for their Uber/Lyft, not just at the bus stops:

Interview questions:

  1. What app do you use in regards to the public bus transportation system?
  2. How often do you use the bus?
  3. What factors go into your decision of taking an Uber/Lyft over the bus?
  4. Are there things you would like to change about the bus system?
  5. How often do you explore Pittsburgh?
  6. What type of transportation do you use when exploring the city?
Snapshot of some of the interviews we were able to conduct

We were able to see similar responses across our interviews, especially in the question where we asked when they choose Uber/Lyft over the bus.

Reviewing Research

After conducting a mass amount of student interviews over the course of a week, we came back together as a group and analyzed the responses we received. Like stated before, we were able to find similar responses across the board, which was helpful for us to see trends of decision-making happening across campus, no matter their age or any other factors.

Keeping our findings in mind, our group next thought about a diary study, brought up during our research proposal critique, however, we did not really know if at this point, having a diary study would lead to any new discoveries or would only serve to be a repetition of factors we already knew because of the interviews.

Furthermore, we also knew it was a problem that we only had one group of stakeholders’ data: students. We wanted to reach out to our connecting stakeholders, which included Port Authority, the company that releases data for transportation apps such as Transit to use, and Transit app, however, we did not know how to reach out and/or whether they would even respond.

The data we received from the interviews, while helpful, also showed us the vast amount of different problems there were with the bus system, problems we as a group knew we could not/did not know how to tackle given our limited time until the end of the semester and thus, the end of our project. It seemed to us that we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew and were at a standstill as to where to proceed from here, research-wise. Our group knew we did not have enough data to completely start the redesigning phase of the project yet, however, we did not know where to begin researching further.

We were able to schedule a meeting with one of our professors, Francis, in hopes he would help push us to a better place in our project and get the gears in our heads turning again. We were able to talk about further research methods our group could take advantage of and more concrete problems we can explore in the short amount of time we were given for this project:

  • We discussed how the Pittsburgh downtown bus stop has displays that show how long it will be before the buses get there, real-time. The downtown stop is one of the busiest and widest-used in the city.
  • The bus way, which used to be a railroad line, but it was ripped out in the 70’s and was converted into a bus lane.
  • Rapid transport is coming to the city, cheaper?
  • Good interviews, perhaps make personas off of rider profiles to condense our data for our audience and include a frequent v. moderate v. rare rider spectrum.
  • Perhaps there is a Port Authority Campus Liaison we could contact — ask about having a ticker on campus bus stop (Tepper?) We each pay $75, does that not warrant enough for a real-time display? Why does CMU pay $75?
  • Perhaps an app where if you take $75 (transportation fee each student pays) /$2.75 (a normal bus fee) and show how much the student has ridden in accordance to what they would normally be paying if they did not have the $75 fee: students see their profit
  • There are different competitive transportation apps: Moovit, Transit, etc. We can analyze them using S.W.O.T. (competitive analysis of different technologies)

S: strong

W: weaknesses

O: opportunity (redesign)

T: threats

  • Whiteboard on buses is strong way of researching what people wants (back to human-centered)
  • We could also conduct paper surveys: five questions (quantitative, to support the qualitative interviews) Ask questions like: how do you spend your time on the bus? Redesign with that in mind.
  • Look at WaitTime
  • Riders want transparency for crowdsourced data

A big question we were able to get answered was whether or not we should be designing the bus experience in regards to the Pittsburgh community or just limit it to our local CMU community. We all came to the conclusion by the end of this meeting that we would focus it on CMU students because of both the limited amount of time we have left, and the ability we will have to obtain richer data because of our smaller data pool. Coming out of the meeting, our group for sure felt that we had a new direction we could move towards and were more confident moving forward.

Expanding Research

We first wanted to support our qualitative data (the interviews) with quantitative data through short surveys that we could further distribute amongst the students. A lot of these questions were repetitive of our interviews, but put into more of a numerical (quantitative) format:

  1. How often do you ride the bus?
  • Once a month
  • 1–3 times a week
  • 4–6 times a week
  • 7–10 times a week
  • 11–15 times a week

2. What app(s) do you use for bus transit?

  • Transit App
  • Google Maps
  • Busgazer
  • Moovit
  • Whiz
  • Other: _________

3. Which of these factors prevent you from an enjoyable bus experience? (Check all that apply)***

  • Unreliable arrival time
  • Long wait time for bus
  • Bad weather
  • Too many transfers to destination
  • Long time on the bus
  • Inconvenience when traveling in groups
  • Packed buses during rush hours
  • Other:

4. How do you usually spend your time on the bus?

  • On your phone
  • Reading
  • Studying
  • Talking with friends
  • Talking with strangers
  • Nothing in particular
  • Other: _________

5. How can the Pittsburgh public bus system be improved?

  • *based on interviews

Our next research method involved asking CMU students to quickly draw what their current bus experience looks like versus what their desired bus experience is.

More qualitative data — ask students to draw their current v. ideal bus experience

We were able to gain some valuable insight on different aspects of what students wanted out of their bus experience, which helped hone us down even more to what problems we as a group wanted to tackle. The responses we received varied, from wanting a less-packed bus, to wanting the bus to be on time, to wanting in-person conversations on the bus itself.

And just as an aside, our group found it interesting how most people responded when we asked them if we could survey them for about 2 minutes. While students responded affirmatively when we asked to survey them, once we mentioned the involvement of drawing, a lot of people immediately shut down, became self-conscious, and very insistent on how they could not draw. Some students immediately refused, and most everyone else, while they drew, they did so apologetically and hesitantly. We found the fact that the majority of students were scared of the aspect of drawing to be interesting to note.

Next, we were able to interview Stan Caldwell, who is the Executive Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic21 Institute. Traffic21 is a multidisciplinary research institute. They seek to research, design, and test information and solutions to better the Pittsburgh transportation system using technology. They specifically look at furthering CMU’s involvement in prominent issues such as “critical infrastructure, transportation access, transportation routing, human factors, artificial intelligence, and web” (Traffic21 Website).

Traffic21 Interview: Recently celebrated their 10th anniversary

Talking to Caldwell, we were able to learn a lot about the involvement of Traffic21, which has been a research institute for 10 years, being a local philanthropist.

“We had no transportation department before, so we developed Traffic21 as an umbrella, to capture all of the research around transportation that happens around the university” -Stan Caldwell

Traffic21 is funded by a larger program called Mobility21, which is a grant from the national level. Traffic21 takes on about 30 projects a year on different types of transportation research across the entire university (this covers all majors beyond Heinz college, from engineering to computer science to design…)

Some notes we took during the interview:

  • Their motto: research development and deployment, they identity bureau world partners, transportation, port authority, problems, faculty can apply tests in the real world
  • Having a deployment component to all the projects, working a lot with communities… in order to understand what the needs/technologies are… focus is on tech and traffic,
  • Real time bus arrival application: Tiramisu, Aaron Steinfeld? went to port authority:, buses have GPS’ on them, we don’t know where the buses are,
  • 2012: automated vehicle locators are very expensive, bus riders can go on the bus, and they can record their location on the bus…

Since then, automated vehicle locators became like the Transit app: crowdsourcing!

Q: How does the process of connecting research with companies work?- -

  • Real world problems and faculty sees it as a viable opportunity, university has some license to them, companies can sponsor research with the university, university can license with them

- the university

- pilot deployment with that research…

not enough research around transit, not an auto-industry, what we are seeing now: a lot more industry developing

“Mobility as a service”

  • Companies like Uber: we can come in and provide this service… we can provide scooters/electric bikes… but we want you to subscribe to our service, there’s a lot of concern out there that that is taking market share from public transit —
  • This quote was one of the most interesting


  • Micro-mobility companies don’t have a viable business model, so there’s a threat that they could just fail
  • They could take the market, and limit the market to just geography and cost
  • They don’t go into neighborhoods that don’t have as many people

Back in the day: there were lots of bus companies, not very profitable:

  • Private companies servicing all the cities, all the cities
  • Port authority: smart traffic signals, surtrac, buses talk to the traffic signals, the signals can help buses going through traffic

Data Analytics:

  • Take realtime and historic data from buses and help provide information to riders on how reliable that is… if buses are supposed to be there at 9 o clock: how reliable is that?
  • Route analysis. Analysis with Port Authority: they moved to a system.
  • If you were leaving downtown and going down: inbound/outbound process, data
  • The whole system is based on moving people to downtown.
  • Have everyone paying at different times.. makes it more efficient?
  • No longer just a downtown center system though…

Port Authority and Transit relationship?

  • Port Authority always wanted to provide third party data
  • Port Authority wants to relation with transit:
  • Online ticketing! you need a relationship with one/other…

City of Pittsburgh:

  • Pittsburgh mobility collaborative, city of Pittsburgh: scooter companies coming into the cities, without any regulation.
  • We want to accept them in the cities… we want to invite groups of companies…augment transit, in all neighborhoods that is not just neighborhoods that are making money.
  • We’re all working in the ecosystem (realtime, scooters, electric bikes, online ticketing), here’s how we’re going to benefit each other. We’re trying to figure out how do we bring these worlds together!The city can allow this to happen with voluntary compliance.
  • Competition? Uncharted territory.
  • Back then, with the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission: taxis, if you want to run a private bus system, you needed permission from Port Authority. However, Uber and Lyft came in and disrupted the system, legal battles for years, the public wanted it, Uber essentially broke the laws in order to force the new technology in

“The combination of students + Uber + bus system relationship is what we are trying to steer the future over towards” — Caldwell (Traffic21)

  • Transit, Healthy Ride, bus, Uber
  • Back to mobility as a service, use consolidators, agents. Especially regarding the payment area. If there was a one source app to pay for everything (for all different types of transportation)

When people need to make a decision in a hurry: the agencies and companies can collaborate.

Caldwell was able to direct us to Michelle Porter, who is the Director of Parking and Transportation Services, in order to further explore the $75 transportation fee that is in place for each CMU student as part of their tuition at the university.

The Intervention

In preparation for our next class check-in, our group reflected on all the research data we had collected and the things we had discovered through the process. The next step was to discuss how to implement all of our findings in a working intervention.

Whiteboard exploration of possible interventions

We found the biggest complaint of bus users: inaccuracy of realtime data + discomfort from packed bus. Some topics of discussion that came up during our meeting:

  • Bus driver realtime data + humanizing bus experience make realtime data more accurate through bus drivers! develop a bus driver user based app that makes sure real time data is entirely accurate, but also adds a human element to the bus experience
  • TO DO: Perhaps interviewing a bus driver
  • Changing payment flow (paying set price once when getting on the bus, rather than paying twice when you get on the bus and off the bus) [a comment from Caldwell, Traffic21]
  • Creating new bus lane [Pittsburgh rapid transit line]
  • Find a way to indicate packed bus let people know when rush hours typically are throughout the week, as well as how packed incoming buses are. if you can’t get on the bus that comes in the next 5 minutes, bus driver can indicate on the app too (most “ideal bus experience” visuals revealed that people prefer personal space)

Getting to the root of the problem —we put a lot of discussion onto how do we make sure that buses are not packed in the first place?

If there was someway we could let users know when buses are typically crowded, perhaps by appropriating a data visualization of rush hours throughout the week, maybe by creating a map of upcoming buses. However, that raises the problem of will people plan ahead knowing this data? What if most people have to go home during rush hours?

We want to incentivize users to take the bus during non-rush hours through reward system.

By implementing a rewards system where there are different thresholds that students can meet by riding the bus. With each threshold met, a new discount to a new business is unlocked, obtained by partnering with local businesses around Pittsburgh. With the incentive of saving money, we are also able to incentivize students to explore Pittsburgh more.

Considering Systems: fueling local businesses + inviting more bus users to be incentivized to planning ahead in using public transit:

This intervention works at a systems level, where multiple stakeholders can benefit. CMU already has a bad reputation for spearheading gentrification in the city, so you might as well use the influx of students into bolstering local businesses that may be suffering from the gentrification. However, this intervention is not really supported by our existing research findings on what users want from the bus system. We have conflicting goals:

Do we want more people to use the bus to explore Pittsburgh?


Do we want existing users to have a better bus experience by addressing their pain-points?

Looking into the near future (rather than solely immediate solutions as above), our group talked about the concept of mobility for service.

Mobility for service = providing multiple options on a single app for people to have agency in choosing their mode of travel.

Transit already does this, but there’s still room for adjusting, as many users don’t recall transit as a mobility for service app, but rather as a bus transit app only

So..what about price tickers?

The reason why we didn’t think the “price ticker” was viable is because most people choose to ride the bus in spite of the annoyances. riding the bus is a must. in fact, there are so many people riding the bus that a good majority of the complaints come from how packed the buses are during rush hours.

There are already a lot of users, as opposed to our initial hypothesis that bus users do not use the bus when trying to explore Pittsburgh.

***is this above statement true though? Are most students really using the bus?? there’s no data to support it, but we can ask Michelle Porter for any data they have regarding ridership at CMU***

We wanted to attack the root of the transportation problem rather than trying to figure out how to get more people to explore Pittsburgh using public transit. We want to dissolve the existing problem within the bus system to develop a better perception of public transit.

Even those who are comfortable enough to use Uber/Lyft frequently do ride the bus when they are going to places in close proximity.

Furthermore, there is no real demand for making the most use out of our bus fees. The $75 is pretty minuscule in our entire tuition. Some people are aware of it, others aren’t, but most importantly, people typically ride the buses even if they have the money to take an Uber/Lyft.

This project is aimed at addressing current pain points, rather than trying to get more people to choose public transit over other services as there are clearly many inherent problems within the public transportation system.

Midpoint Poster


  • The idea of having a profiles of bus driver is interesting, it humanizes out drivers and makes passengers more comfortable with the bus system. The next step to take would be to prototype all of our potential interventions.
  • Possible next step: Having a competitor analysis of other transportation apps in different regions/countries. People rank Pittsburgh’s public transportation based on relativity of where they come from. And so, analyzing what the apps they currently use, why does that work, what things are working that we can stick into our intervention

One Last Interview

We were able to get one more interview with Michelle Porter, who is the CMU Director of Parking and Transportations Services. As Director, she handles issues having to do with parking on campus, distribution of parking permits, transit parking, visitor parking, and other events.

We were able to gain a good amount of information, here are some of the notes we took throughout the duration of the interview:

  • CMU has a contract with Port Authority in regards to the public transportation system. CMU also has a zip car program
  • HealthyRide, slowly testing the program on students
  • UPitt, CMU, and Carlow all have contracts with Port Authority
  • The contract: gives the university affiliates to have access to the service
  • Years ago, they had to pay a flat fee for public transport and now, they have changed it to what it is now, a tap system
  • Portion of 75$ used for Port Authority bus. Other portion goes to the shuttle and escort operation. That fee has always been around.
  • There used to be a transportation system from CMU to the Waterfront, which was cancelled. Why did this service fail? In Porter’s opinion, it has to do with how 5–10 years ago, Uber and Lyft didn’t exist, students needed a more structured system to get around, but now that these services do exist, this scheduled transportation system is too much of a hassle.
  • CMU has been trying to partner with Uber and Lyft for a while
  • Another part of Porter’s job is to be a member on Pittsburgh’s Parking and Transportation Advisory Committee and they are trying to develop a relationship with Uber/Lyft
  • But everything costs money, we would have to figure out where that money comes from
  • 4/5 years ago, when Uber started to make their entrance, CMU was contacted, but they declined, thinking the escort service was more convenient for students, but were wrong.
  • Currently in talks with HealthyRide
  • Zipcar: Zipcar program is over utilized, when we started Zipcar, we started with two vehicles, CMU was the first university in Western Pennsylvania to partner with Zipcar, then the City of Pittsburgh entered a contract with them.
  • Within three months, the utilization rate went up to 110%, the program is popular. A question they had to consider was where can they place these cars on campus that can be convenient to the students?
  • CMU has no influence over bus routes. But Port Authority does a good job giving us say and access to the service
  • 61s (Port Authority sends more buses when there’s more traffic/rush hour)

Designing our Final Intervention

Whiteboard thoughts during meeting

With all the information we have accumulated through interviews, surveys, and further research, we decided to finalize our intervention. Our group wanted to focus on designing three features in order to answer the most common complaints we found in our research. These features would ideally be able to be incorporated into any transportation application. We found there were already so many applications out there that people use, and so instead of introducing yet another app, we wanted to design features that are broad enough to be incorporated into any existing transportation app.

These three interventions are humanizing the bus driver, which stemmed from the results we received from our drawing surveys.

  • This intervention includes perhaps giving a profile picture to the bus driver and displaying the name of the driver, in order to allow the riders to feel more comfortable going on the bus now that the person driving the bus is more humanized and approachable.

We also have bus rewards, inspired by the idea that Stan Caldwell mentioned of designing “mobility as a service”.

  • The idea behind this intervention is to have a bar on the top with the number of miles each rider has ridden. Within that bar are multiple thresholds where you can unlock different statuses to reach being a Gold Rider.
  • In order to inspire the students to ride the bus more, there are also rewards for different local businesses around Pittsburgh that can be used when the rider uses the bus to get there. This goes back to one of our primary goals to influence students to explore Pittsburgh more, using the bus system.

Lastly, we have the bus sensor, which came from our survey/student interview results.

  • There will be a bus sensor on each bus that tracks the amount of riders that are on the bus. That data will be sent to the app, where it will update people waiting for the bus if that specific bus is likely to pass them or not. This is helpful during rush hour and other times where you are unsure/not expecting the bus to pass by you when you are trying to get to your destination. It will minimize frustration.

Through all of these interventions, our group wants to emphasize MOBILITY AS A SERVICE and in our final poster, emphasize the research and results we received and how that directly contributed to our final conclusions.

Final Research Poster



Caroline Song

Communications Designer @cmudesign. Learning how to bridge people together through art, writing + visual design.