Using software design mental models to understand an African transport problem
Today I used the Madina ‘trotro’ (small buses used for ride sharing in Ghana) station, for the first time, to get a ‘trotro’ going from Accra to Koforidua. What an experience it was! What a system!
First of all it is very crowded,very much so. All typesof hawkers and vendors are around the station and there is so much noise and cars moving around (a bit dangerous).
When you manage to ‘enter the station’ (which is very difficult to navigate), you see a bunch of guys shouting some locations. I looked for the sign boards with destinations written on them sitting on the hoods of the ‘trotros’. Even after that I had to ask the mate (one in charge of coordinating a particular bus) if he would be stopping at a particular stop. He takes my suitcase, and places it behind the trotro, with its trunk open, — but not inside. After taking my seat, I basically spend the whole time watching the bag because I didn't feel safe with where it was. Anyone could easily walk buy and pick it up without me noticing. And it was too big to put on my lap. At a point the mate went to the back and put a number of suitcases and bags in the back of the car and closed the trunk. I could only hope that my luggage was still there.
I’m sitting in the ‘trotro’, very uncomfortable given the modified seats to accommodate more people, and some guy comes and hands me some sort of ticket and asks for Ghc 10. I’m very puzzled at this point because I have no idea what the ticket or the payment is for. To my knowledge of trotros you pay the mate on the journey. Turns out it was payment for the journey. I could not even tell if this guy was a legitimate cash collector because the way the nature of the place us such that can be swindled easily. This is especially so when you look like you don’t frequent such places (‘trotro’ stations). I had to sit and wait for the car to fill up — and considering this is going across regions it took quite some time.
Not to mention hawkers keep coming to ask you to buy stuff and stick around after you say “nah you’re cool.”
Interestingly, some design principles from Human Computer Interaction can be used to analyze the steps involved in using this system. The concept is known as cognitive walkthrough. In software design it involves stepping through the steps a system will require a user to perform and check for potential usability problems.
In cognitive walkthrough you ask:
Is the effect of the action the same as the user’s goal at that point?
Will I surely get a car if I go the a station or do I have to worry about finding one? Will this be the case at all reasonable hours of the day? If I pay to someone does it mean I am good to go for the journey?
Will users see that the action is available?
I should be able to see the cars I need to get to my destination at the station and not need to navigate t a lot to find, or hear lots of shouts. How will I know who to pay to and the cost?
Once users have found the correct action, will they know it is the one they need?
Once I manage to find a car, would I know it’s the exact car I need. Will it be taking my route to the location and how will I know his? Once I have found someone collecting payments, will I know he is the one needed for my bus?
After the action is taken, will users understand the feedback they get?
After I sit in the car selected, will I know when we will depart, how far we are from the destination? Do I know of my luggage status or the stops that will be along my route? How long will my whole journey take. When I pick the bus and sit down I should have convenient access to such feedback.
When designing effective systems, sometimes approaching a problem with a different mental model can uncover new ways to address pain points. Like in the above design principles in user interface design can be applied to a transport system to uncover some insights. More frameworks are available and should be applied to converge on a solution that ameliorates the users pain points.