Re-envisioning Public Transit

Design a better public transit experience for commuters

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For many, commuting is a rare opportunity for solitude and reflection. It's a temporary escape from family, friends, and colleagues, where users can prepare for their day, reflect on personal or professional concerns, or simply get lost in a favorite book, song, or podcast. For most, however, the Boston subway commuting experience fails to support this type of personal reflection. Coping with its unpredictability, overcrowding, and other stressors drains precious cognitive resources. Additionally, commuters are unable to safely, easily, and privately engage with secondary activities (e.g. reviewing emails, streaming video), which can lead to a more productive and pleasurable experience.

Working in partnership with two graduate students, I designed a new subway product/service that addressed these pain points for users willing to pay a higher fare in exchange for greater solitude and control. Our design leveraged current subway infrastructure, while also pushing the boundaries of current technology to deliver a truly unique user experience.  


The product suite, entitled comMooder, provides users with a private haven (i.e. "bubble") from fellow commuters, that can be reserved and customized via a companion app. Watch this protocast for an overview.

Within the digital bubble, users can safely and easily access content (e.g. streaming video), as well as engage in a variety of activities (e.g. prepping for a presentation, reviewing emails) privately and without disturbing fellow passengers. During the ride, the bubble UI displays trip progress and customizable alerts (e.g. travel delays, approaching subway stations, new emails/incoming phone calls), providing the user with a sense of control and peace of mind. 

Step 1: The user downloads the comMooder app and registers his/her account.

Step 2: The user learns how to set up his/her preferred routes, alerts, and in-bubble experience preferences via a quick onboarding tutorial.


Step 3: In “Settings,” the user is able to establish his/her standard routes, choose a digital environment (e.g. beach setting, mountain landscape) and music. These settings can be altered at any time.


Step 4: While commuting, the app allows the user to review incoming trains, reserve a bubble, and select their “mood.” The user then receives a confirmation, noting his/her destination, ETA, mood, and bubble number. (Note: The user is able to reserve a bubble up until the train arrives at the station)


Step 5: The user boards the train. He/she steps onto the sensor plate of his/her reserved bubble and adjusts the safety bars to the locked position. This launches the digital bubble. Once the user has verified his/her identity via speech or fingerprint recognition, the bubble loads a home screen, featuring the digital environment and audio and app settings the user previously selected. The bubble utilizes sound dampening and one-way image projection to ensure sufficient acoustic and visual privacy.

Clickable Prototypes


Problem statement: We began by brainstorming potential pain points in the commuting experience, including travel via car, bus, and subway. From there, we narrowed our scope to subway commuters and formulated our initial problem statement.

Target user group: Next, we identified the various user groups involved in the commuting experience and selected our target: working professionals who utilized the subway to commute to/from work. We discussed their characteristics, potential goals, and pain points and formed a skeletal persona.

Research: We then recruited and interviewed six commuters within our target user group. We crafted our interview protocol with the goal of understanding their wants, needs, and pain points.

Our "eureka" moment came during one interview in which a user equated his commute with his "shower time"--his daily chance for solitude, calm, and reflection. During affinity diagramming, we realized this sentiment had been echoed by the other 5 users as well. As a result, "shower time" became the mantra for our team. We found ourselves returning to it again and again. It galvanized our team and shaped our design decisions, from the UI's functionality to its appearance.

The interview data also enabled us to identify three key pain points in the experience: unpredictability (e.g. ETA at work/home unknown, seating availability in incoming subway car unknown), lack of solitude (e.g. lack of personal space and visual/auditory privacy), and lack of connectivity (e.g. unable to safely and easily access content on-the-go while riding). These pain points informed our design requirements and principles (to be discussed later).

Additionally, the data enabled us to generate a more robust and accurate persona (below).




















We individually sketched concepts that could satisfy the needs of our primary persona (i.e. Alex). When we reconvened, nine sketches were brought to the table. We discussed the sketches, ideated, and narrowed our focus to three product concepts (below). We then separated again to individually re-sketch the three concepts.

After presenting our revised sketches, we eliminated one concept, but could not settle on the final approach. We decided to present sketches of the two finalists (the "Digital Bubble" and the "Commuter's Best Friend") to the individuals we initially interviewed. Based on their feedback, we selected the "Digital Bubble" design as our solution. 

Storyboard: We then storyboarded Alex using the bubble on his way to work (see below). Our storyboards were shared, discussed, and iterated upon.

Once we discussed the storyboards and came to consensus, we ideated further on the specific interactions and capabilities of the product, the functional cartography of the app and digital bubble, and the execution of the paper and 3D prototypes.

We identified three key tasks in the user journey

1. Setting up the user profile

2. Pre-boarding activity, and

3. Bubble activation/user experience.


We decided that the initial set-up, including the setting of default destinations (e.g. work, home) and personal preferences (e.g. environment, audio, bubble functionality) would take place on the comMooder companion app. This was done to ensure that all interaction in the digital bubble was related to the user’s desired tasks (e.g. reading emails) rather than logistical set up, maximizing time devoted to pleasure and productivity.


Each team member sketched out the core interactions of each of the three tasks. We discussed those sketches as group and later refined them. Finally, we regrouped with more advanced sketches, ideated, and developed a paper prototype of the app and bubble UI, as well as a 3D prototype of the bubble terminal.  

The prototypes were shared with users. Their feedback informed the final, medium fidelity UI screens for the app and bubble, as well as the low-fidelity 3D bubble terminal design.


In considering the optimal functional cartography for this product, we decided that the primary logistical tasks would be completed via the companion mobile app vs. the bubble UI.

These tasks included:

●      Setting default routes (e.g. work, home) and arrival times (e.g. 9:00am)

●      Setting alert preferences (e.g. alert me 2 minutes before I reach my stop)

●      Selecting smartphone apps accessible within the bubble (e.g. email, phone, web browser, photo library)

●      Creating customizable mood “playlists” that pair digital environments (e.g. beach scene) with preferred audio (e.g.

         reggae music)

●      Viewing approaching train information (e.g. predicted arrival time) and bubble availability

●      Reserving bubble

●      Selecting route and mood prior to boarding train

This is to ensure that all interaction in the bubble is related to the user’s desired tasks (e.g. reading emails) rather than logistical set up, ensuring the maximum potential for productivity.


Once activated via a sensor plate located on the floor of the subway/train car, the bubble offers the following functionality:


●      A personal 360 degree screen space that is soundproof and projects content visible only to the user.

●      Auto-detection of the comMooder companion app, allowing the system to load the user’s preset destination, mood

        settings (environment and audio), and apps (e.g. email).

●      Alerts regarding train status and impending arrival at the user’s stop. For the latter, the system prompts the user to

        save his/her work, if appropriate. This allows the commuter to prepare to mentally and physically disengage with the

        bubble. Alert timing is a preference chosen through his profile settings prior to boarding. The user also receives

        alerts for incoming email, phone calls, etc.

●      The user can exit the bubble by selected the “Exit Bubble” button within the main navigation bar or by disengaging

        the safety bars and stepping off the sensor plate. His activity within the bubble (e.g. work on a presentation) is


●      The bubble is again activated when the next commuter steps onto the bubble sensor plate and engages the safety



  • Identifying design opportunities based on user pain points and un(der)met needs

  • Generating user research protocols (i.e. non-biased, non-leading interview protocol)

  • Conducting user research (i.e. interviews)

  • Analyzing user research data using affinity diagramming

  • Sketching

  • Storyboarding

  • Paper prototyping (a mobile app and an immersive 360 degree digital interface)

  • Conducting usability tests with paper prototypes

  • Wireframing in Axure RP (a mobile app and an immersive 360 degree digital interface)

  • Generating medium-fidelity prototypes in Axure RP (a mobile app and an immersive 360 degree digital interface)

  • Building a 3-D prototype

  • Communicating findings (i.e. written report, oral presentation)


  • Drafted protocol for user interviews; shared with team for feedback and revised accordingly

  • Conducted interviews with 2 users; reported findings back to team

  • Generated persona based on interview data (i.e. "Alex")

  • Facilitated brainstorms

  • Originated final design solution (i.e. immersive digital pods (aka "bubbles") for subway/light rail passengers)

  • Designed initial app and digital bubble screens for paper prototype

  • Designed medium-fidelity digital bubble screens in Axure RP

  • Co-wrote final report

  • Co-created and delivered final presentation to stakeholders

Want more detail? Read on...

© 2017 Vanessa Wiegel