Author: Arvind Padmanabhan
Room for improving usability and reliability
Let me start by saying that I’m a regular user of public transport. Sometime last year, BMTC released a mobile app that’s meant to give users accurate and timely information about bus routes and arrival times. I’ve been using this app for a few months now. It’s particularly useful on routes where buses are few and far between. An accurate foreknowledge of arrivals can save commuters from long waits. How does this work?
Each bus is fitted with a GPS transceiver. The location of each bus is conveyed in real time to a central system. Actually, the update happens every 10 seconds. Once the system is updated, users can query the system from their mobile apps to know when a particular bus is arriving at their bus stop. A more detailed narrative was published recently on Factor Daily. They also published a basic review of the app itself.
The app has its problems, mainly from the perspective of usability. The system itself has reliability issues. Let’s look at these one at a time.
The default page has four rectangles that can be clicked but the only option I’ve used is the Trip Planner. A user can enter the source and destination bus stops and get a view of buses and their Estimated Time of Arrivals (ETA).
Problem is that when we navigate to the next page, three of these buttons are available as tabs. In addition, a menu on the top right corner duplicates these links. It’s not intuitive. The use of tabs within a page to duplicate direct links from the main page is definitely a design flaw. It’s a flaw because it deviates from established conventions and what users have come to expect of tabs. Often too many clicks are needed to get information.
Unusable List of Bus Stops Nearby
A long list of bus stops with distances is hardly usable. Is there a better way? I’m sure there is but the difficultly is in deciding on the right approach. The problem here is trying to figure out intent. Is the user trying to find a particular bus but doesn’t know the bus stop nearby where it stops? Is the user wants to know the bus stop relative to his current location or a specific location elsewhere? Is the user trying to find the earliest bus towards some part of the city?
A user experience designer will probably think differently. A user wants to get from point A to point B. All interactions should probably be refactored into this form, which is exactly what the Trip Planner part of the app does.
Search and Filter
Searching for something like “BEM” gives a list that includes BEML buses. To my understanding, these are buses that only BEML employees can use. What’s the value in showing these to public? Elsewhere, users are asked to search by route numbers or bus stops. This traditional way of searching on a mobile app is not really user friendly. To find out bus fares, users have to select the service type. Not many folks will know how to make this selection.
Bus Deviating from Route
The screenshot shows route 13 from Shivajinagar to Banashankari. One particular bus is deviating from the prescribed route. It’s sensible to expect the system to flag this for users as well. In fact, backend monitoring services should give alerts for this sort of thing.
I would also like to question the need to show buses on maps. I guess users have come to expect this even though ETA is probably the most useful thing for a commuter.
Wrong Estimates of ETA
It’s not clear how these are calculated but they are accurate only during off-peak hours or when the bus is only a few stops away. When there’s traffic, a commuter can end up waiting for an hour even when the ETA shows 10 minutes. An example of this is an evening wait at Doopanahalli bus stop for buses coming from Koramanagala.
Sometimes buses disappear from the route display even when they are on the way. This is probably due to the fact that GPS couldn’t see the satellites or data connectivity to the central system was lost. The system could do better to estimate based on recent data for a reasonable time window. A stranger case is when the app shows that bus is on the way but it never turns up! I experienced this a couple of time.
Buses Leaving from Terminus
This is a big problem with the app. Suppose your house is five-minute walk from the terminus. You would like to know when the next bus starts from the terminus. The system is designed in such a way that buses are tracked only after a trip starts. So you will never know when the next bus is going to start from the terminus. Timetables are unreliable and that’s exactly why this real-time GPS-based system has been implemented. It would have been nice to transfer ETAs and bus intervals to the return trip.
Google Play Services Integration
This is an obvious error. You can’t blame Google or Android for this when none of the other installed apps are throwing out such an error.
BMTC’s Intelligent Transport System (ITS) is the system that manages all the data. Data from this system is what goes into smartphone app views. This data is also available on digital displays in bus stations. I don’t know the value of linking to this data from the app when the app is already capable of showing ETAs.
Worse still, user is redirect to a web browser where this information is shown. The user is therefore taken out of the app for something that has little value in my opinion.
In conclusion, I believe the app is useful but if users have to start using it on a regular basis, usability must be improved. Data must be accurate and reliable. Core to design thinking is empathy. Designers of this app have to think why users will need this app and what specific problems they face. Once they understand this, they will get closer to making an app that gives users a rich and satisfying experience. In my personal opinion, the app could be a lot simpler.
Author: Arvind Padmanabhan
Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With more than fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about tech blogging, training and supporting early stage Indian start-ups. He is a founder member of two non-profit community platforms: IEDF and Devopedia. In 2013, he published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.