Designing a Londoner’s Commute

With my new design job at Sofar Sounds came a new experience: Commuting in London. I soon realised that commuting isn’t the best experience London has to offer. What makes commuting in London generally critical is that it’s shared by a wide audience, constantly experienced, and hard to fix.

Shared by a wide audience

Every morning, more than 1.1 million Londoners enter Central London by using public transport. The average commuting time for people working in London is 45 minutes, which comes close to my personal commuting time of about 50 minutes.

These are almost two hours a day spent for commuting, assuming that people are traveling back home after work. Rounded up to a year, commuters spend 520 hours traveling to work and back home (based on a five day work week, e.g. Monday to Friday, excluding holidays).

Constantly experienced

Two hours is a considerable amount of time, but what makes them crucial is that they are spent every day. Commuting therefore plays a big part in people’s life and how people experience their commutes affects their overall well-being.

Commuting in London during peak times mainly means standing sandwiched between other commuters and hunched under the tube's low ceilings while breathing the warm and stale air of the underground.

While you’re still waiting for the tube, you need to carefully plan how and where you enter the train, since it will arrive with bodies pressed against the train’s windows, making you wonder how you and the 100 other people on the platform are supposed to fit in.

Waiting for the next train because the current one is too full is not an edge case and doesn’t promise improvement, because this scenario repeats between 8am and 10am, causing you to spend even more time on your commute.

Hard to fix

The probably most critical issue about commuting in London is that the described experience can be hardly changed.

The first underground railway was opened 153 years ago and built with a smaller population and human being in mind. Although lines are permanently extended and stations improved to become brighter and step-free, the underground network remains the work from over one century ago and requires 1.3 billion pounds annually to better meet nowadays needs.

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Understanding the problem from the user’s perspective

As designers, we are always striving to solve a problem. But what can’t be solved here is the London Underground itself, unless you have a few billion pounds spare money and a time machine which enables you to travel 153 years back in time and build it from scratch. However, what can be solved is the commute.

While the following exploration only takes my very personal commute experience into account, the observations may be true for other London commuters as well.

Identifying pain points

To make sure we’re solving the right problem, we first need to identity pain points during a commute.
I mapped out my current commute experience by paying attention to what frustrates me most, but also what causes joy and comfort.

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Experience map of my morning commute from home to work.

Following the graph's course, you can see that not so much is enjoyable here. From all the pain points identified, these are the most important ones I want to tackle:

Packed and cramped trains

As outlined above, everyone needs to travel by public transport during peak times, due to aligned office hours (the famous 9 to 5 job). However, some trains are more packed than others, depending on size, frequency and number of passed stations:

  • Size
    Some trains have higher ceilings and more volume which results in more space for passengers and better air.

  • Frequency
    While some trains depart every two minutes, others operate less frequently. The fewer trains operate, the more people need to fit into one train.

  • Number of stations
    Every station is an opportunity for people to get in the train. So if the train stops at lots of stations, many people will try to get in, causing delays and making the train even more packed.

A large number of stations is of course generally a good thing, because it ensures accessibility of the overall transportation network. However, if you are already sandwiched between other commuters, you will wish that the train goes straight to your final destination.

Spending time

Delays seem to be inevitable during peak times. They are either caused by technical defects on trains and railways, or – and this seems to be a repeating issue – too many people leaving and entering trains and preventing doors from closing, so that the train can't continue.

As a result, my daily commute time often increases from 45 minutes to over 1 hour, which means that even more time is spent on an activity which is more a means to an end rather than an activity itself.

Physical stress: Air pollution, darkness and noise

Because most of London’s public transport happens under the ground, the air is stale, daylight is non existent and the tight tunnels maximise the squeaking of old trains rushing on even older rails. Air pollution reached a level that the city decided to install alerts that inform travellers about toxic air conditions. Accompanied by the limited space and temperatures raising up to 35°C, commuting becomes a physical matter.

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Solving the problem

I came up with several ideas during an online course, where I was tasked to create storyboards that demonstrate solutions in public transport. My ideas range from simple voice alerts, to smart and data-driven apps that show you where to enter the train or which route is most convenient based on emptiness.

Turning these ideas into reality would definitely be fun, but requires time and access to data owned or to be collected by local transportation networks.

Instead, I needed a quick fix, so I approached my commute problem with common design principles and practices I normally apply when I design for users other than myself.

1. Help the user to make a decision

Citymapper is one of the most popular transportation apps in London due to its smart suggestions, customised shortcuts and detailed journey information. It rapidly adds new cities to its service to become valuable for more users around the globe.

citymapper
Citymapper

While Citymapper always shows the fastest route, it doesn't necessarily show the most comfortable one, based on emptiness, accessibility of stations and train conditions.

Fortunately, we humans are experience driven beings, who are good at remembering positive and negative experiences and base our future decisions on past experiences. I hoped that if I gained enough experience about my commute, I would make smarter decisions.

So I tested different connections, different train services and different parts of the train, always in close collaboration with Citymapper which informed me about delays.

flow-chart
The flow chart shows which means of transport to pick depending on different conditions.

2. Give users the right tools for the given context

As mentioned above, commuting can take more than 2 hours per day. There are various options around how to spend commute time effectively, like finishing some work on the laptop or checking and answering emails.

The problem: There is no internet connection in the underground and the packed and loud trains don't offer an environment for dedicated focused work. Hence, I needed an activity which requires little cognitive effort, runs offline and can be easily interrupted when changing trains.

These are two effective ways to bridge time within these constraints, while giving me the daily dose of inspiration I need as a designer:

1) Reading online articles
There are so many great articles out there that it's sometimes hard to catch up. Commutes are the perfect time to tick off some articles on your list. An offline reader app – my favourite one is Instapaper, but Pocket works the same – makes them accessible without internet connection and shows how much time each article takes to read.

2) Listening to podcasts
Starring at your phone’s tiny screen after 8 hours of working on a laptop is not always the best solution. For these kind of days, I like listening to design podcasts. My favourite ones come from Intercom and DN FM by Designer News.

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Instapaper left, Apple Podcasts right

3. Add delight

Beyond the “form follows function” credo, it’s after all emotional human beings who use the products we design. By adding delight to our designs, we hope to establish closer relationships with our customers and make them choose our product over competitors’ solutions.

In my commute experience, I add delight by switching off the commuting chaos around me and playing my favourite music. Noise cancelling or isolating headphones help to achieve this effect as well as a music library which is easy to update. I myself decided for Apple Music and the Momentum 2.0 headphones from Sennheiser.
But be careful when not traveling in a safe environment like on the streets, when being aware of what happens around you is important.

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Conclusion

Human-centered design can be applied to almost every daily situation. While it’s sometimes not possible to change the underlying system, small changes on the user-facing side can already make for a better experience.
In the end, the aim of design is to establish new experiences and to change people’s behaviour in a way that improves their lives.