In the fall of 2016, I worked on a semester-long user research project exploring how to improve the transportation system for graduate students at the University of Michigan going to and from Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Our group aimed to tackle a problem that plagues many students at the University of Michigan: finding timely, affordable transportation to and from the Detroit Metropolitan airport. Despite there being a plethora of options to use (taxis, public buses, Uber & Lyft, as well as personal cars), due to students’ budgets and a diversity in living locations, these transport options often don’t adequately solve user needs.
Our team wanted to first better understand the design space that we were were operating in and learn from history what transport options have and have not worked. We therefore conducted research in five, transport-related areas pertaining to the Detroit area and beyond:
- Target audience
- Competitive analysis
- History of transport in Ann Arbor
- Airport transport at other US universities
- Product reviews of innovative transport options around the world
Our team conducted seven interviews with four students (potential users) and three different airport transport service providers (potential competitors). Our goals in our interviews with the students were to learn about:
- Their current overall experience in getting to and from the airport, learning specifically about what works well and what doesn’t
- Their last trip to the airport and the specific details of it
- What factors are most important to them when considering an airport transport service and why
- What is currently lacking and what do students wish existed in regards to airport transport
After each interview, our team rounded up to conduct an interpretation session. During these sessions, we created 30-50 notes capturing the important quotes, pain points, and insights from the interview. These notes would later form the basis for our affinity wall: a system that allowed us to group hundreds of notes together by theme, visualizing the data collected over the course of seven interviews, and ultimately provided us with the visual data to identify trends from our interviews.
Engaging in interpretation sessions after each interview and then using these sessions to ultimately create the affinity wall was invaluable in helping us to uncover the main needs and considerations when thinking of designing a better way to help students get to and from the airport. We used this data as our primary inspiration for the final sketch and mockup of a potential solution.
College students at the University of Michigan must make a trade-off between using a service that is convenient yet expensive (like Uber and Lyft) or inconvenient yet inexpensive (like airBus). Through our interviews, we uncovered five overarching themes when thinking about providing a new airport transport system. We ultimately used several of these findings to serve as a guide for the mockup of our solution.
To develop our solution, based on what identified as most important through our interviews, we considered three main findings:
- Limited user knowledge of current transport options
- Need for student coordination
We took these findings to sketch out and provide an initial mockup of a possible solution. This first iteration was a peer-to-peer mobile application that allowed students to connect with other students who were also going to the airport and shared a similar location and itinerary.
This semester-long project exposed me to the design methodology of Contextual Inquiry, using this to tackle a tough design challenge. Reflecting on this project, I realize that I grew as a designer and leader in three ways:
Dealing with ambiguity
Although we started with a specific design problem in mind, the solution, at least at the beginning and even middle of the project, was ambiguous. It was only through conducting enough user research, comparative analysis, and background research that a potential solution idea began to resolve itself. Having the patience to understand that through enough research, trends and themes will start to show, was a big turning point for me.
Leading and managing a team
Leading an intercultural team, with a variety of work and life experiences, required me to be flexible and understanding of various working styles and personalities. As a designer, it’s important to understand those that are seemingly not like you, and working closely in a group for a three-month period certainly helped solidify that for me. Everyone has different comforts, quirks, ideas, and beliefs, and leading this team helped me become more comfortable with that.
I’ve always been a visual learner, preferring to hand write notes and sketch out ideas and thoughts. Working on this project confirmed the power of visualizing data to help discover meaning. Specifically, creating the Affinity Wall was a time-consuming yet eye-opening experience as to what working closely with your data and physically mapping it out can do to help discover insights.