CMU Transportation Research

Conducting user research on the current transportation needs of the CMU community and find opportunities to improve the transit service for CMU riders to access multiple reliable, safe transit options to go and from campus.


Course project:

User-centered research & evaluation


Jingya Chen

Mohan Bai

Allison Hodsdon

Rocky Wang

Fanglin Chen


User research plan & conduction



Contextual Inquiry



Data Analysis

Speed Dating 

5-second Testing

Experience Prototyping




Adobe Photoshop


Spring 2019 (8 Weeks)

01/  Overview

Client & Goal

The project was presented with a challenge: to research and find ways to improve transportation systems for students at Carnegie Mellon University. Specifically, our client was the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), a group interested in improving the wellness, safety, and experience for CMU graduate students. Their vision:

"Our vision is that every graduate student has access to multiple kinds of reliable transportation that allow for safe, direct commutes to and from campus.

------ CMU GSA Representative

Before going to our journey in detail, I would like to give a brief overview and access to our deliverables if you are interested in one specific part:

Design Suggestion Overview

TartanTransit Board is a digital display that will be installed in high-traffic locations on CMU campus (e.g. The CUC building north entrance, Starbucks at Craig, Tepper Quad). It aggregates the transit data from across several transportation options (CMU shuttle/escort, City bus, rideshare service) to help riders plan when and how they leave campus before they even outside. 

02/  Identify Problems

Background Research

We began by reviewing ridership data of the CMU Shuttle & Escort and researching secondary sources that could tell us about the landscape of transportation in Pittsburgh and for universities nationwide. We also made sure we were familiar with the systems at hand, taking a shuttle ride from campus if we weren’t already active riders. Through this initial and early analysis, we identified some interesting aspects of the problem area.

General Problems​

  1. The current shuttle system is unclear and confusing, presenting challenges for first-time users.

  2. Using and planning your travel with the CMU Shuttle/Escort is a completely separate experience from the PAT (public) bus system, but it’s likely that riders may be considering both simultaneously for their transportation.

  3. Pittsburgh’s growth in cycling is outpacing other major cities, and CMU is moderately ranked as Bike Friendly.  However, progress for cyclist lanes/benefits is limited.

This background research also left us with some questions:

  • With such highs and lows of bus usages, how can we ensure that shuttles are fuller, more useful? Can we find a way to optimize shuttle usage and redirect the saved funds to provide customized options during low-peak hours?

  • What nearby neighborhoods would be highly desirable for students if only they had better access to public/CMU transportation? Can we examine these possibilities and find ways to help students gain more access to affordable housing?

Analysis of interview data using the model method

To better understand the current practices, stakeholders and issues for the CMU shuttle and escort services, we have conducted interviews with 4 relevant CMU persons: a shuttle driver (D1), a rider (R1), the Police Chief in charge of the CMU shuttle and escort operation (L0), and the Director of the Department of Parking & Transportation Services at CMU (L3). We then conducted an interpretation session for each interview in which we recorded the most relevant notes.

Then, based on our interpretation session notes, we analyze the data using a Modeling method, by creating Flow and Sequence models from the data.

High-level insights from models

1. The responsibilities are not clearly distributed and well connected.

2. The public transportation service is not fully used by students as expected.

3. Based on current regulations, the check process for riders before getting on the bus is complicated and time-consuming. 

4. Shuttle and escort follow quite a similar format for picking up riders but are quite different on how riders are dropped off. This mainly reflects the different aims of two systems: shuttle more on efficiency, escort more on safety.

Approach to achieve insights

First of all, I organized all the text information into graphical models to reveal the entire practice in an organized way, which helps the concepts to be more concrete. Secondly, I take a deeper look into every entity, object, and affiliation, figuring out their own responsibilities and goals. Thirdly, after getting a sense of the general responsibilities distribution, I focus on the interactions and cooperations among them, understanding how the information and work are communicated and exchanged. And then, I look into those who shared similar responsibilities to perceive their collaborations, simultaneously, I look for those unusual links and problematic interactions and where the breakdowns happen especially the facts are far from what we expect.

Focus Setting: Waiting Experience

Over the course of several weeks, we worked in diverse teams to conduct primary user research in order to better understand the transportation problems of CMU graduate students and generate insights (to be discussed in the later sections). At one stage, we took this research and “walked the wall”, a method used by designers that include absorbing and reflecting on weeks of user research and insights. By walking the wall, we opened a new discussion about student transportation issues at CMU. This process helped us “reframe” the problem at hand to understand more than just the CMU shuttle system, to find a new angle and perspective on how to improve it for the CMU community.

At this stage, we decided to set our focus area as improving the waiting experience when accessing transportation from campus. This focus applies to all types of transportation options, including waiting and pick-up/drop-off locations for shuttle and escort, Uber/Lyft, and personal cars. 

03/  Process + Methods

Project Structure

The project follows the IBM design think method which proceeds in a continuous cycle of observing, reflecting and making. This model drives us to understand the current CMU transportation situation and also help us envision what will the transportation service look like in the future. 

Research Methods

1. Stakeholder Mapping

Stakeholder mapping is a process of finding out the key stakeholders relating to a project. The process involves identifying all individuals who have an interest in the project outcome. In our project, we first used stakeholder mapping as a tool to identify the relationship among all the entities involve the CMU transportation system and also utilized it to figure out the best candidate who will be observed and interviewed in the following contextual inquiry session

After we listed all the relevant stakeholder and linked with arrows, we decided to select CMU students as the research target. The reasons are that CMU students are the primary users of pickup locations on campus. 

Use: They use them most weekdays and whenever they visit campus in order to use various modes of transportation, including the CMU shuttle/escort, PAT bus, and taxi services like Uber & Lyft. Alternatively, if they are picked up or dropped off by a friend or family member in a car, they are using other types of locations on campus.

Behavior: As a result, they are also likely to be waiting and spending the most amount of time at these locations and are interested in making them better. 

Mentality toward stops/waiting: Based on our research, they currently would not rate the waiting experience as enjoyable: Instead, they’re more likely to find it stressful, confusing, or frustrating.


2. Contextual Inquiry & Affinity Diagramming

As we selected the CMU students as the target stakeholder to dig into and wish to find out the in-depth insights. Each of our team members recruited a CMU student as the contextual inquiry participant. The reason for using this method is to understand communication flows, the sequence of tasks, the artifacts and tools people use to accomplish the waiting journey before they get on a vehicle.

In terms of my session of Contextual Inquiry, I invited a 2nd-year CMU grad students, who can access multiple transportation methods to commute from her home to CMU main campus. Since our project focus is the waiting experience, thus I followed her and waited together at the Forbes Ave Opp bus stop until she gets on the bus.

Below are some of the question that I asked her during the session:

      1. I noticed you are doing______, so did you do this yesterday as well to kill your waiting time at the              stop?
      2. As you told me, you can either take 61C, 61D or shuttle to go home, so how does the quality

         of the waiting experience change for each method of transportation?
      3. Would you enjoy having other things to do at bus stops?
      4. Do you dislike the current waiting experience for buses and shuttles?
      5. What are the potential breakdowns during your waiting experience?
      6. How do you to define a waiting experience?

The next but most important step was the Note Interpretation, each of the team members took their notes to a table, and we worked as a  to make hypotheses about what that the data means to the participants. we leveraged Affinity Diagramming to cluster the notes into different topics and then generated 3 levels of insights.

3. Survey 

the goal of our survey is to determine the how CMU students evaluate the current usefulness and satisfaction of the waiting experience for three main transportation methods to campus: the PAT bus, CMU shuttle & escort, rideshare services (Uber & Lyft), and what is the difference among different methods. For our survey design, we used the USE Questionnaire as a source method for validated, rigorously-tested questions.


We collected both quantitative and qualitative data, which we analyzed and visualized in order to draw insights. Our results are limited due to the size and selection of the survey participants, but we have early evidence that has helped us in this research phase. With our results, we have visualized the ranking of each transportation method in different aspects and have tentatively concluded that there may be ways to make the transportation waiting experience more consistent across methods, including the safety, location, and customization features. We will take these insights into our next phase of research, which will include early prototypes to improve the waiting experience for transportation at CMU.  

Link of the survey

This survey has given us insights as to how students perceive the quality, usefulness, and satisfaction of common methods of transportation at CMU. While the selection of participants was limited, it provided some helpful early data, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that we can use when we begin to prioritize student transportation solutions in the future. Specifically, we see opportunities to improve the waiting experience and the safety of pickup and dropoff locations. We have also seen some evidence that CMU shuttles, despite their issues, offer some preferred customization that we may need to consider as we move forward.​

4. Speed Dating

From our analysis, we’ve identified five of the most compelling user needs to take into the storyboard phase: 

  • Users want to minimize wait time and avoid unnecessary waiting at the pick-up location

  • Users want to access reliable information about their transportation; they want to be able to trust the information and/or believe it’s accurate (e.g. ETA).

  • Users need access to other backup transportation options, especially when the current transport becomes unpredictable.

  • When using ride-hailing service, users want to reach a quick agreement with the driver on the pick-up spot. (e.g place which is safe and easy to be recognized by both the rider and driver)

  • Users prefer to waiting for transportation in a comfortable place (especially during extreme weather.)

Using these needs, we’ve outlined ideas for how to test our assumptions using storyboards:

The speed dating is a powerful method to help us quickly validated the users' needs from our assumption, plus, it encourages users to actively co-design the concept and it helps figure out a way to optimize waiting locations.

Finally, we select the storyboard In-building display of transit information as our focus for prototyping in the evaluative phase, because its low risk on the infrastructure cost (minimal changes on the existing structure of transit info apps), high relevance to user needs in waiting experience, and connections to our other envisioned and favored needs (e.g. omnichannel and closely distributed pick-up locations).

04/  Prototyping + Iteration

Lo-Fi Prototype

We created our first Lo-Fi prototype according to the storyboard that got the most votes in the speed dating session and considered the participants’ feedback to adjust the feature and interface layout.

5 Second Test 

To operationalize our prototypes, we printed our low-fi wireframes to cardboards and place them on our envisioned busy on-campus corners that are adjacent to pick-up locations of public transportations for experience prototyping, including areas such as CUC and TepperQuad. We expected this will present an understandable form of information display in an immersive environment. 

The 5-second test was kindly a success, we got a lot of positive feedback. Generally, participants were able to identify the purpose of the information board, and they thought it will be likely easily adopted and quickly understandable. But, we still got some confusion and suggestions such as “users are required to have some transit knowledge so that they can make the best use of the board”, “users have their choice in mind before checking the time board.” and etc. 

1st Round Iteration  

Thus, we iterated interface for the 1st round in terms of the aspects below:


  • Add the inbound/outbound info for PAT bus

  • Apply color and other visual support to distinguish different options

  • Map could potentially be embedded, providing where are the stops is (high-level abstract), in order to get a visual reference of their how to get to the stop

  • Rename bus stop to make it more centralized

  • Revisit how to display Uber/Lyft

  • To be more holistic for transport options, consider even more potential for additional options (Healthy Bikes)

05/  Final Solution

2nd Round Iteration  

For the 2nd iteration, we integrated the envisioned changes to another iteration of our Hi-fi prototype, based on feedback from experience prototyping session. Because of the rich layers of transit information to convey in an omnichannel fashion, we decided to apply proper colorings to differentiate layers of information, including stops, time, route, and transportation means. We also change the layout to make a dedicated area for the map. We also add directions on the map to hint users with the notion of inbound and outbound of the city bus. Finally, other environmental information is also provided to keep riders informed on deciding whether to choose inside or outside. 

TartanTransit Board is a digital display that will be installed in high-traffic locations on CMU campus (e.g. The CUC building north entrance, Starbucks at Craig, Tepper Quad). It aggregates the transit data from across several transportation options (CMU shuttle/escort, City bus, rideshare service) to help riders plan when and how they leave campus before they even outside.  


  • Aggregated and centralized Information

The board aggregates diverse sources of information, helping riders make an instant, informed decision. This also makes riders more confident of the data and systems, as it’s not relying on one single source. Riders are better able to expect the unexpected and find alternative options if their main method is unavailable. Since transportation can be unpredictable, students can use the data about various options to make a better decision and take control over their commute

  • Keep comfort indoor waiting experience longer

By allocating these displays at indoor environments in high-traffic campus buildings (which are next to high-traffic pickup/dropoff zones), our solution helps CMU riders predict and plan before they get to outdoor pickup locations, which keeps them in an enjoyable indoors experience longer (avoid rain and snow). It also reduces the crowdedness at pickup locations.

  • Installing in high-traffic and pick-up stops nearby locations on campus

By installing in high-traffic locations on campus, riders will be able to make decisions at-a-glance while minimizing the crowds, confusion, and challenges they face at pickup or dropoff zones.

  • Use as an educational tool for new riders to access the transit info on campus

Since the current CUC north gate area seems like a campus transportation hub, 5 different pick-up spots are set around there. People, especially the new CMU students sometimes will be confused and struggle about which stop is the right one to get on certain transportation. With the map, the TartanTransit board allows the new rider to figure out what and how to get to the stop in an effective way.

  • The Board is low-cost and leverages resources that already exist at CMU

The board is easy to be created and installed without costing too much, all the data resource can get from the existing APIs.

Poster & Elevator Pitch  

In order to pitch our idea to the CMU students and our client GSA, we summarized our research findings and solutions into a Poster, and also we practiced the script to tell a 1-minute long compelling story to the audience

The project is aiming to conduct user research of the current transportation system on the CMU campus for GSA(Graduate Student Assembly), targeting CMU students who regularly or semi-regularly take the shuttle, escort, city bus or even Uber/Lyft to get to and from campus, understanding the existing flaws of the transportation system and explore design opportunities by utilizing exploratory, generative and evaluative research methods, in order to improve the CMU transportation system and provide safe, reliable and accessible transit options that meet CMU students' needs. 


The project goes in two rounds, the first round is to evaluate the current campus transportation app Tiramisu, trying to find usability issues and unmet needs from users.


This project is a course project focusing more on User-Centered Research & Evaluation, we conducted mixed-method user studies both in the generative and evaluative stages.

User Research Deliverables

1. Research focus setting and recruiting plan:  Focus Setting & Research Plan

2. We conducted the contextual inquiry and held interpretation session: Contextual Inquiry Report

3. Based on the contextual inquiry and interview results, we created the affinity diagram: Affinity Diagram

4. We got the log data of the current Tiramisu App and generated some valuable insights through quantitative analysis and data visualization: Log Data Analysis

5. To have a better idea of the usability issues of the Tiramisu App, we use Think-aloud Usability Testing

In the second round, we reframing the focus area in the waiting experience, so we conducted a series of research to understand the problem in this area and came up with a design suggestion.

1. Reframing the research focus and study recruiting plan:  Focus Reframing

2. To have a concept of who are involved in our focus area, we organized: Stakeholder Map

3. For the new focus area, we conducted another round of: Contextual Inquiry

4. We sent out a survey to the target user group and created a detailed report: Survey Report

5. To validate the user needs we identified, we created storyboards for the user to test:  Storyboarding & Speed dating


06/  Takeaways

Choosing the right user research methodology

When starting a user research project, the most challenging question can often be, “What type of research do I need?” Selecting an appropriate research methodology is one of the key factors that can make or break a research project.  In this project, I selected more than 5 methods, some methods were generative (Contextual Inquiry, Survey) which suits to define the problem you're going to solve. while the other methods are evaluative (experience prototyping) which are used for testing existing solutions to see if it meets the people's needs. 

Contextual interviewing offers deep insight into how users actually use a product.

It’s a very effective research technique that can be deployed at any stage of UX research. However, it’s important to understand the limitations of contextual interviewing before making any decisions based on the results of such research.