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SFMTA Website & App Redesign

How a public transit service remains relevant and trusted by both locals and visitors.


The SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) is a historic and iconic transit agency, with the goal of providing safe and accessible transportation to all of the city's communities.  Unfortunately, due to the increasing population, their service has become sluggish, struggling to accommodate the increase in demand.   In addition, there is increasing competition for their passengers attention as the popularity of car-sharing services continues to rise.  As a result, their reputation and brand identity have suffered and ridership has continued to decrease.  During this 2-week design challenge, my team was asked to envision how the SFMTA might increase ridership and begin to rebuild the brand's trust with the locals.

In a city whose population is projected to grow 35% by 2040, how does a public transit service keep up?

We began by conducting stakeholder interviews, talking to everyone from transit operators, to daily commuters, to visitors, to organizations working to better public transit in San Francisco.  Our takeaways from the interviews were: 

• Visitors: The transit system is not intuitive for someone new to the city.  Most did not research public transit available in San Francisco prior to their visit, assuming they could figure it out on the fly.

• Commuters: Public transportation during peak hours is chaotic.  Some common complaints were how frequently buses stop and the frustration when scheduled buses don't show up.  In addition, all the construction downtown makes every route delayed regardless of capacity.

• Operators: Operationally, the system is antiquated.  The operators have seen little change over the years and are just as frustrated as the passengers.  Their unreliable equipment (i.e. radios) can cause additional delays and increase frustration.

What are the stand-out systems around the world, and what makes them so effective?

Initial research showed repeated praise for the public transit in London, Paris, and Berlin, due to their efficiency and overall excellent user experience.  In addition to system efficiency, these agencies more effectively communicated reliable information to their patrons via websites and apps.

In order to see how the SFMTA's digital resources compared to their competitors, we conducted a simple task analysis of the 4 transit websites.  In our test we asked our test subjects to complete 3 basic tasks, timing how long each one took.  This data set offered a means of comparison between each site's effectiveness.   Our tasks were based on 3 developing persona types:

 the "Peak Hour Commuter": Find the fastest route from point A to point B and be aware of any current delays.

 the "Off-Peak Commuter": Get step-by-step directions from point A to point B and print out directions.

the "Visitor": Get directions from SFO Airport to Hilton Hotel for trip next week, and print out directions.

How can we help design a better user experience?

Our results indicated that overall, the SFMTA website took the longest amount of time to navigate and complete each task compared with London, Berlin, and Paris.  These results, in addition to our early user interviews and the timeline at hand, lead our team to conclude that a large part of customer dissatisfaction stemmed from a lack of reliable, up-to-date information.  The majority of users were all using third party apps to get their transit info, never even thinking to trust the SFMTA as a source of the truth.

Things We Know: 

• Users have come to terms with the fact that transit will be crowded, but they desire to be empowered with more accurate info on delays and schedules

• If the users were more aware of the ongoing efforts by the SFMTA to improve roads, increase bike lanes, and reduce congestion they might have more empathy for the agency. 

Our goal:  In order for the SFMTA site to become a sought-after resource, we needed to restructure the site architecture to be built around the user's primary needs.  In addition, the site should showcase the SFMTA's efforts towards bettering transportation within the city and plans for the future.  Lastly, we wanted to keep mobile in mind since this is where most of our users were going for their daily commuter info.  Our strategy was to establish a trustworthy platform on the web, and then migrate to a mobile experience once the user-base is strong enough. 

Who are we designing for and what are their primary needs?

Using our initial user interviews as a guide, 3 personas rose to the surface.  Each persona was constructed around their need for accessing the SFMTA site, their familiarity with the brand, and the amount of time they had to complete to task (i.e how rushed they were).  

• Frequent User: "I'm a daily commuter who needs to get to work on time.  Show me the route and delays quickly so I can get out the door."

• Occasional User: "I'm a Bay Area local that needs to take care of weekday errands efficiently downtown.  I prefer to travel when it is less crowded "

• First-Time User: "I'm an international tourist looking to plan my upcoming trip to SF.  I plan on relying on public transit heavily"

We interviewed each persona type, asking what their current relationship was with the SFMTA site and what an ideal transit website looked like to them.  Their answers helped drive the features we'd focus on for the MVP.  Overwhelmingly, the Trip Planner feature was the biggest value-add for our users.

Site Re-Design Strategy

The first step was looking at the site's overall information architecture and reorganizing the information into a more innate hierarchy, with an emphasis on the Trip Planner feature, being the module that allows users to quickly get directions from point A to point B.  We wanted the site to be functional and simple, providing quality information to users looking to use the SF transit services.

We continued to ask our users for feedback throughout the iterative design process.  An important insight was understanding our user's existing mental models of "trip planners" and map-based directions.  It was crucial that our design fit within these mental models, instead of reinventing the Trip Planner simply for the sake of reinventing.  

The site re-design emphasized the Trip Planner feature, leveraging Google Maps for user familiarity.  In addition to the directions, the SFMTA had the ability to provide reliable route specific information regarding delays, advisories, and alerts, adding additional value and merit.  Another value-add we recognized was the point after a user found the directions they were searching for.  For our visiting users, they could save the directions to their "My Trips" section on the site, ideal for pre-trip planning.  For our day-to-day users, they would also have the option of sending the directions to an email address, printing them out, texting themselves a the link, or navigating directly to the SFMTA app.

The re-design proposal began with the web, recognizing that the SFMTA needs to start establishing trust at a platform level.  In addition, they have a good deal of competitors in the transit app space, increasing the importance of differentiating themselves from the other apps before diving in head first .  Moving forward the SFMTA ideally would translate their website into a more streamlined app experience, consisting mostly of user profile information and the Trip Planner feature.