Storyboarding design ideas that solve problems in public transport
In winter 2016, I participated in an online course on coursera called Human-Centered Design: an Introduction, where I had to complete several assignments. One was to create storyboards that illustrate design ideas for transportation as overall topic.
The task was first to brainstorm design ideas which meet a certain need or solve an existing problem and then to choose the top 3 design ideas I’d like to storyboard. For each design idea, I was asked to create 2 storyboards showing alternative tasks or users.
Understanding the user's task before designing the interface
Storyboarding as a way of prototyping solutions has first of all one purpose: Concentrating on the user’s task before focusing on the user interface.
The easiest mistake is to start working on the actual interface before being clear about the task the interface is going to support. On the one hand, storyboarding as a practice helps designers to figure out which task users try to accomplish within a certain context or situation. On the other hand, storyboards as an outcome are a powerful tool to make these user-centered tasks concrete and understandable for team members, clients and other stakeholders.
The course material explained which criteria and components make for a good storyboard:
Investigating the problem that leads to a certain task
As storyboarding is all about the user’s task, it was time to find out what this task is.
Tasks most often derive from problems users encounter and the way of solving these problems creates the task. So, investigating people’s problems and pain points within an experience leads to ways of improving it by task-driven solutions.
Understanding the problem
Understanding which problems users might have and my design ideas finally want to solve is therefore the very first step and a task on its own. For this reason, interviewing users as a method to detect these problems was a previous assignment of the course and the results served as the starting point here.
As my participant lives in London and doesn't own a car, my interview was all about the problems public transport in London involves. Here’s the most important insight I learned from interviewing my participant:
Key Problem: Inconvenient commutes caused by cramped trains and delays
In London, getting around by car is expensive and slow, so daily commuting highly depends on public transport. As going to work and back home is seen as a means to an end, not a journey, time and flexibility are crucial. Pace and space become the biggest pain points when travelers have to face cramped trains and stations during peak-times as well as spontaneous delays.
Gathering initial design ideas based on insights from the interview
Talking to real users is an invaluable way of getting insights and coming up with lots of design ideas. Taking notes during the interview isn’t only useful to capture key points the participant says, it’s also a chance to catch ideas you come up within the immediate moment. Listening to the audio recording directly after the interview helped me to review my notes and thoughts as well as to add and specify initial ideas.
PRIORITIZING DESIGN IDEAS
Adapting the design thinking framework to evaluate design ideas
Now it’s time to prove if the gathered ideas are appropriate to solve the given problem. Using the design thinking framework, I developed the following three categories to identify which design ideas are worth to follow up.
Considering technical constraints and feasibility
Although a technology-related investigation was not part of the course’s assignment, it seemed to be a waste of time to work on products which couldn't exist due to a lack of technical feasibility. So I considered how the ideas could be implemented in the real world.
Rating my initial ideas based on the questions above led to my three top design ideas.
Below you’ll find a description of each design idea as well as the related storyboards demonstrating user’s tasks in different situations within the context of public transport in London.
Design Idea 1: How to find the most convenient way to get around
INSIGHT: Sometimes relaxation is more important than speed
Often time is a crucial issue, but sometimes having a pleasant and relaxing journey to work and back home is more important, especially when one had an exhausting day and no time pressure. Most transportation apps show users the fastest way to get around, but pay less attention on the convenience of the journey.
SOLUTION: Suggesting convenient routes based on emptiness and the number of changes
My first design idea is trying to fill this need by showing users options which take more time than other routes, but offer less changes and more emptiness in trains and buses even up to a free-seat-guarantee.
How can we measure emptiness?
Everyday people in London pass the railway gate and check in with their Oyster card to use public transport. In addition, nearly every person traveling by public transport uses a smartphone with sensors and radio and WIFI connection. By using data from these sources, the app knows the location of people and can give estimations which trains and stations are full or empty at the moment.
Max – First Storyboard of Design Idea 1
Max has just finished a taxing day at work and wants to take his commute home as an opportunity to relax
Mom – Second Storyboard of Design Idea 1
This woman has a lot stuff to carry home (bags, baby carriage etc). What she certainly doesn’t need is a full bus where is no place for her and all her belongings.
Design Idea 2: When to head off to the station?
INSIGHT: It's about getting from A to B, not traveling
In my user interview, I found out that the overall goal of people using transportation is simply to arrive at their desired destination. This tells us that using transportation is only a means to an end and that spending much time on the journey is something to avoid.
INSIGHT: Unforeseen and spontaneous circumstances make it hard to plan time efficiently
Instead, people want to plan their time more efficiently in order to stick a little bit longer to activities which are more fun. In a perfect world, this kind of time management is easy. But in real life, people have to deal with train delays and distractions. Looking at the phone and checking departure times every second can be annoying.
SOLUTION: A voice reminder that catches up with travel updates and knows walking distances
My idea of a voice reminder helps even the most absent people to not forget departure times as well as tells them when they can stay at their place a little bit longer by knowing about delays and walking distances.
Man wearing a smartwatch – First Storyboard of Design Idea 2
The man in the pictures often experienced that the morning train is delayed. Heading off to the station and then realizing that the train will arrive later is annoying especially when he could have used the waiting time for relaxing at home, finishing the newspaper article and drinking coffee. Looking up traffic alerts and calculating the walking time to the station seems to be a necessary task within the morning routine.
Mia – Second Storyboard of Design Idea 2
Mia wants to attend a meetup tonight and has to travel far to the location where the meetup will take place. As she tends to lose a feeling of time as soon as she entered an interesting discussion with her colleagues, she needs an app which tells her to leave in the crucial moment.
Design Idea 3: Where to enter the train?
INSIGHT: Nobody wants to be sandwiched during commutes
Avoiding inconvenient journeys doesn't necessarily mean that one needs to choose entirely different routes (see design idea 1). Sometimes it can help to know which part of a train is more convenient than another regarding the individual task a user needs to get done.
SOLUTION: Showing which part of the train is most empty and comfortable
By giving the user advice where to enter a train, the third design idea helps people to avoid cramped carriages and long walks to the next platform or the exit. The app works similar to the functionality described in design idea 1, but concentrates on other types of problems occurring when people are under time pressure and have to get a certain train.
Ben – First Storyboard of Design Idea 3
Ben hates full and cramped trains but also noticed that some carriages are much fuller than others. Unfortunately, when the train has already arrived, it’s often too late to run along the platform and enter the empty part.
Anna – Second Storyboard of Design Idea 3
Walking through the London underground can be a real time killer. When Anna checked how to get to an important meeting, she’s already running late and need to save time wherever she can.
TOP LESSONS LEARNED
First the solution, then the storyboard
Understanding storyboarding as a method of rapid prototyping means that the represented solution matters most, not how perfect the drawing is. However, the solution itself needs thinking and development which slows down the drawing process. Mapping out the user’s experience or journey in a non-comic way before drawing the actual storyboard would probably help create storyboards more efficiently.
Creating presentable storyboards takes time
Creating storyboards can be a quick activity if they are rough. But does a storyboard which is so rough that only the creator can understand it still fulfils the purpose of communicating the idea it represents? Rough storyboards are great ways for internal use and for designers to capture their ideas. But when it comes to presenting storyboards to stakeholders (or course mates assessing your work like in my case), you want to make sure the storyboards provide enough detail to tell a compelling story. However, creating detailed and tidy storyboards takes more time than rapid prototyping should.
Journey Mapping as storyboarding alternative
Since I’ve done this exercise, I tried to use storyboarding in other contexts, but so far I’ve failed to make use of it. Based on my experience that storyboards lose their value without a well thought-out idea and can be time consuming in production, I favoured other methods like journey mapping to get an understanding of where and when a product can help people to accomplish a task. This method is certainly not as compelling and tangible for non-designers as storyboards, but journey maps can be done more quickly and roughly and therefore fit better in my rapid prototyping toolkit.