Design. Technology. Problem Solving.

Redesigning the OneBusAway App

Feb to May 2015


This was a 4-months long masters thesis project undertaken by me alone, under the guidance of my ever helpful guide, Prof. Kari Watkins. In this project, I redesigned the OneBusAway app.

OneBusAway is an open-source app that presents realtime information about when a bus/train arrives at a stop/station. I was a frequent user of this app, and I felt it could use a some user-focused design to improve the experience of its users.

I conducted my research by speaking with 100 random public transit riders. I learned about transit usage patterns, use of schedules, and attitudes towards realtime information. I also learned more about the demographic of the users of the app. I used the insights from my research to build a prototype of the redesigned app, and tested it with actual users to uncover aspects of teh design that didn't work, and to improve the design. I conducted three iterations, each time learning more from the testing phase.

Why Work on OneBusAway?

1. Realtime information is proven to improve the ridership experience. A lot of past work has been done on the value of access to realtime transit information. It can make riders feel like they're having to wait for lesser time [1] [2] [3] to catch their bus/train. It also boosts satisfaction with the transit system [4] [5], and potentially leads to increased ridership [6](which makes transit more viable in turn - a virtuous cycle).

2. Mass transit is more carbon efficient and space efficient. With each passing day, we know two things are happenning: the world is growing both warmer, and more populous. Effective mass transit can help reduce per-capita carbon emissions at a scale that no other technology facilitates. One other factor is this: space in our cities is a limited resource, and mass transit makes efficient use of public space by far. We've all seen images like this:

My hope is that a better transit riding experience can lead to more people choosing to take transit more frequently.

Overall Process

This is the high level sequence of steps I planned to follow during this project. I started by conducting a survey to learn more about transit riders — their habits, preferences and attitudes towards transit information. Then I followed it up with iterative design, prototyping and testing.

User Research

The target audience of the OneBusAway app is transit riders. I realized that I needed to know the answers to the following questions about transit riders in order to inform the design of this app:

To learn about all these aspects, I conducted short 15-minute-long stuctured interviews with 100 randomized transit riders from various bus and train stations around Atlanta, and analysed the data that I collected during the interviews.


1. Repeat Behaviour

I found that almost 80% of riders repeated the same trips 4 times a week, and used a very small number of routes over and over again.

2. Use of Schedules

About 35% of riders either remembered the schedule, or looked it up a day before, and didn't refer to schedules at all subsequently, while 46% or riders looked up the schedule either a few minutes before leaving for the transit stop, or on their way to the stop.

3. Attitudes towards Realtime Information

All respondents were asked what they thought about realtime arrivals info. A few emergent themes from their responses were:


I drew a few key insights from my observations:

A note about offline usage

OneBusAway also supports an SMS interface for users who do not have a smartphone, or a mobile data connection. A rider can text a stopcode to it, and get back arrivals information. The affordances of that interaction do not support a lot of convenient information discovery though. I chose to not design for that interace, as it would be a separate project on its own.

A Heuristic Evaluation

Before heading on to do a redesign, I also reviewed OneBusAway's current design and made notes about interactions that could be improved.

Screenshots of the Android and iOS apps at that time

The Redesign

Based on the insights of the user research, and a heuristic review of the then current app, I chose four main focus areas for the new designs:

Focus areas for the redesigned app

Aspects that were not focussed on deliberately

I saw that there were other opportunities to improve the app as well. Transit planning was a feature that the app didn't have, but is very useful to new transit riders. However I didn't focus on that because I would need to research a different segment of users to understand them. There were also opportunities for improving the search functionality, but those were not addressed purely based on constraints in time.

The First Iteration

With the focus areas in mind, I drew up wireframes for a new design. I stitched these wireframes together with some javascript to build a web-based prototype that could be opened on a phone for testing.

Prototype 1

Screenshots from the first prototype

I conducted user testing with a few volunteers, to find out whether:

Testing with this first prototype revealed several flaws with the design.

Feedback collected from user testing

Second Iteration - A High Fidelity Prototype with Improvements

As a next step, I built a high-fidelity prototype of the app. This prototype looked and felt like a real app, and problematic interaction patterns from the previous design were fixed.

Prototype 2

In this design, I had fixed several interaction quirks that were discovered from the previous round of testing. Feedback from this version was more positive than from the first prototype:

Feedback collected from testing the second iteration of design

Final Iteration

In this iteration, the display of summary information was enlarged, and the presentation of detailed arrivals information was fixed, and combined with a preview of the schedule. The representation of vehicles positions on the map was also fixed to avoid confusion with other icons.

With this prototype, I conducted more full-fledged usability tests with 12 participants.

Final Prototype

Test Results


The process taught me several things about doing design:

Is There More?

While this app is focuses on providing transit arrivals information, this is not everything that a transit rider looks for. Some aspects of transit that also merit attention are:

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