Usability and Mobile Transit Apps

"Smart Ride," "YourBus MBTA," and have collectively saved me quite a bit of time. Many days, I take a bus to and from work, and due to the unpredictable circumstances of this particular route, its published schedule is seldom accurate. My mornings became a little less harried with the discovery of a suite of transit tracking apps.

There are two flavors of transit apps: the Boston-specific apps (, YourBus MBTA), and the all-purpose apps (Smart Ride, NextBus). At first I loved the extensibility of Smart Ride and others of its ilk -- on several trips to San Francisco, I was able to pull out my phone and navigate the bus system while far out in the Sunset. The app was the same, but the geography had refreshed. It was a pleasant surprise not to have to download a new app for a new city.

From the Smart Ride website.

From the Smart Ride website.

But upon my return to Boston, I noticed something peculiar in Smart Ride: the tracking system had become so sensitive that it had begun to include the Harvard and MIT shuttle schedules. These shuttles are for those affiliated with the Harvard and MIT community, and for those users, it may be very useful to have public and institution-specific  transit information integrated into one app. However, for the rest of the community it was noise. Moreover, there was no option to remove other forms of the transit. NextBus has this down a little better -- its content refreshes depending on where you are, but you still choose the route.  Both apps show all the agencies supported, which seems more of a testament to their growth and is less immediately useful to the user. It seems that both of these apps overwhelm the user with choice, compromising findability. There are so many options that it can be hard to identify the one they are seeking.

Smart Ride has a certain level of customizability: there is a "Favorites" tab where users can add frequently-used routes. Nevertheless, it's useful largely for a regular commute and not when you find yourself across town and just need to get somewhere.

So the question remains: how much content is too much content?

Last summer I held a UX design workshop in conjunction with Ladies That UX Boston. A city of trains, bicycles, and buses, our focus was naturally public transit. We talked about which transit apps worked for us, and which didn't. We discussed having not enough choice: using a bus-only app when you also take the train sometimes, versus too much choice (a hyperactive Google Maps that shows you many possible routes with all modes of transportation when all you want to do is go to work in the morning).

"I just want to know what's fastest," someone lamented. "But I also want to take the bus or train because I don't have a car." She paused. "Or maybe bike, I guess. If it's nice out. Maybe the app could tell me the weather."

We spent the rest of the evening brainstorming and sketching, and I concluded that the user experience is should be easily customizable. My transit app should show me buses and trains tailored to my geography, and just that. After all, the app should appeal to the average user, who is probably not a student at a particular university (not to mention that there are over 250 colleges and universities in the Boston area!). But let's offer options. Let students toggle on and off their campus' shuttle, and make that option discoverable, ensuring that the functionality is easy to find and its value is readily understood. 

One final thought: one of the key values of city-specific apps is that they can provide language, directions, or traffic warnings that are meaningful to residents of that city. Many GPS services are not sophisticated enough to understand how strange Boston's layout is –– what appears to be the shortest path is often not, and many landmarks go by local names (the "Harvard Bridge" is known as the "Mass Ave Bridge," which describes its location more accurately).

For now, I'll keep using Smart Ride because it serves most of my needs locally and when I'm out of town. But I'd advocate for a more customizable interface that focuses on what's here and now, rather than what might work in another city or if the user has access to a semi-private form of transportation.