Video: A Vision for Improving the CTA Rider Experience

If you thought geography was only about borders and place names, you may be surprised to learn that geographers work in such disparate fields as education policy, cyberinfrastructure, economics and health. To learn how the spatial intelligence at the heart of geography affects almost everything, check out “Geography: A Career without Borders” in the fall 2015 issue of DePaul Magazine, and read the article below to discover how one geography alumnus has used his skills to improve transportation information.

If you are among the 1.6 million people who routinely travel via the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), you may find that the real-time schedule displays, now at many bus stops and train stations, are a useful tool. As helpful as this information may be, Ian Hall (LAS ’04), a DePaul geography alumnus, user experience researcher and daily Red Line rider, believes there is room for improvement.

“I’ve been working toward a master’s degree in DePaul’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program, which really makes you see the world in a different way and notice its idiosyncrasies,” Hall says, “and CTA signage has always bothered me a bit.” At many stops, the signage has room for only two lines of travel information at a time and updates about every 10 seconds. For some riders, that update frequency is too limited to help them decide which connections to make between trains. In addition, there is wasted space that could be used to convey more information. “I thought that if I could redesign how information is shown on the signs, I could practice my user experience skills and fix a problem that is relatively easy to solve without replacing all the hardware,” Hall notes.

Hall drew on his geography knowledge and HCI courses to research the physical contexts in which the signs are used, such as on “L” platforms and near entrance and exit turnstiles. He started with ethnographic research. “I talked to some people I know who ride the ‘L’ daily,” he says. “I asked them if they noticed the signs and if they liked them, or whether there was a reason to change them. Based on what they said, I made some paper sketches of different ideas.” Hall then went back to his sources and asked, “’Does this look right? What words were you expecting where?’ I wanted to do what made the most sense to them.”

Once he had an acceptable plan, he used the wireframe software tool Axure to create a mock-up of the sign and again vetted it with his sources and colleagues. He also solicited input from the DePaul HCI group on Facebook and other Chicagocentric websites. His final steps were to use the Keynote program on his MacBook to animate the sign and upload the video to YouTube for comment.

Hall’s revised signage has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but he has no current plan to approach the CTA. “I know they have internal groups working on the same project. There are a lot of feasibility considerations we have to be sensitive to. For example, the signs are placed in different locations. I’m aware of six different placement scenarios, and that’s one of the difficulties with a project like this. I don’t imagine my signage is adaptable to all the different signs used by the CTA, but it can add to all of them.”

In outlying suburban communities and rural settings where public transportation runs less frequently than in urban centers, schedule signage is even more important, yet less available. Nonetheless, Hall says, “It’s not necessarily about signage, but about allowing computer technology to do what’s best for the user.”

Although Hall’s exercise may never be directly implemented, the experience was valuable for him and those with whom he consulted. It also brought Hall back to his roots in geography. “Geography is a way of seeing the interconnection of all things, the contextual environment of where people live,” he explains. “I think it has quite an impact on my daily work.”

Learn more about modern geography in the fall issue of DePaul Magazine. >>

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