Why I created Bus Uncle

Abhilash Murthy
Feb 17, 2017 · 8 min read
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As one of modern Singapore’s pioneer bots, he has mastered uncle humour and tells you jokes when you are bored waiting for you bus to arrive. People call him crazy, rude, and obnoxious, but that’s just him being frank with you. Don’t be offended by him, he means no harm and only wants to help. He has slapped smiles on the faces of tens of thousands of commuters. He is Singapore’s favourite travel companion.

Bus Uncle is a Facebook Messenger bot.

He has been featured in Tech In Asia, TODAY Newspaper, and GovTech.

As of February 16 2017, he has been rated 4.9 out of 5.0 stars on his Facebook page.

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Building Bus Uncle has been one of the most interesting stories of my life. Through this article, I hope to share this story with you, and how it went from a idea in my mind to a real impact on thousands of commuters.

The Idea

I wish I could just ask someone how long I have to wait

I knew that there was an electronic board behind me showing me a list of buses and their arrival times

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Source: http://pehping.blogspot.sg/

This was too much information I told myself. There is a list of all buses, all their arrival times, and the next bus arrival times. Furthermore, I had to wait for the screen to refresh and show me the next page of buses before I could find bus 65.

I then turned to my bus arrival timing apps

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Citymapper, SG BusLeh, Moovit, SG Buses

I had been using these apps for years but on that one day, I felt that something didn’t feel right.

This is overwhelming I told myself. In each of the apps, I had to click on a location button, guess which bus stop I was at on the map, and see a long list of bus services and their arrival times . There was a lot of clicking, scrolling, typing, swiping, and perusing involved to find my bus 65. All this to answer just one question:

How long more do I have to wait for bus 65?

It then struck me that in April 2016, Facebook had released Messenger Platform for bots. I had been wanting to build a bot ever since, and deemed that a bus arrival timing bot could answer my question. I planned to build a bot that would tell me my bus arrival time — nothing more, nothing less.

The Experiment

Bot: Where are you?

Me: 60121

Bot: Which bus?

Me: 65

Bot: 3 mins

Ok cool. I had a working prototype of exactly what I wanted. Now it was time to give my bot a name. Some names I considered were Bus Bot and Singapore Chat Bus, but as a creative who loves music and animation, I cringed at both these names.

After several conversations with my bot, it dawned on me that I was talking to someone else on Facebook Messenger. I pondered on the idea of giving this bot a human personality. How fun! Which human being would like to tell me my bus arrival time in Singapore? I scavenged my past experiences with buses, and was instantly reminded of grumpy and kiasu bus captains. Singaporeans call them bus uncles and bus aunties. I snickered and told my girlfriend I will call this bot Bus Uncle.

Bus Uncle in my mind was a born and bred Singaporean, so it was natural for me to opt for Singlish as his mother-tongue. My girlfriend, who is Singaporean, and I brainstormed and came up with some real proper Singlish replies for the bot. I thought to myself that if anyone was going to speak to the bot daily for their bus arrival times, the bot better be really interesting. This triggered the decision to make snarky humour and wisecracks a core aspect of the Bus Uncle’s personality. He just had to tell you jokes.

I now needed a face for Bus Uncle. I asked my friend Kyle, my designer colleague, for help. Her genius came up with this:

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Bus Uncle

It was beautiful. Her illustration captures the idea of a Singapore bus bot really well: he looks very digital, and his colours remind you of SBS Transit. His simple geometry makes him easy to remember as well. Kyle even helped me spruce up the cover photo of the Bus Uncle page, and I have since been eternally grateful to her for creating the Bus Uncle brand.

After a few runs of trial and error, with feedback from friends and colleagues, I had brought Bus Uncle to life. He was launched on my Facebook timeline in late October 2016.

The Product

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How are you uncle?

He has learned the complex Singapore bus system, and simplifies it for you

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9 mins sing song la

He aims to make you smile with his jester-like personality. He even tells you jokes and sends you emoji when you are bored

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Uncle joke pls

He is full of surprises. You can ask him if your bus has seats, and a whole lot of other things about the oncoming buses to your bus stop

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Got seats?

The impact that Bus Uncle has had on commuters in Singapore is huge, and it largely deals with how easy it is to talk to him.

The Impact

To reiterate, my question from the beginning was

How long more do I have to wait for bus 65?

I wanted my answer in one sentence, and that’s all I needed to know

3 mins, take out your EZ link

There is a handful of iOS and Android bus arrival timing apps that have tried to answer this question in a visually pleasing manner:

  • They have a map that shows you all the bus stops around you
  • They have a list that shows you all the buses at your bus stop
  • They use multiple tabs to give you added functionality
  • They use multiple colours, font sizes, and italics for emphasis

These apps are great, they make you a “power user”. You can visualise the bus system in your own customised way and be in charge of your own user experience. What I thought to myself however was

I did not want to be a power user

Just tell me how long I have to wait

By late December 2016, I had confirmed that tens of thousands of commuters in Singapore also did not want to be power users. I was not alone in this.

We did not need another app for this. Most people use a maximum of 4–6 apps on their phone regularly. Installing another app to answer a simple question meant

  1. You need to spend time to understand how to use the app yourself
  2. You need to re-install the app whenever you change your phone
  3. You have to wait for the app to load

Bus Uncle solves all these problems

You don’t need to figure out talking to Bus Uncle yourself. He will teach you how to talk to him. Tell him your bus, your bus stop number, or address in any order and he will guide you. You can even send your location and he will magically find which bus stop you’re at

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Send Location — as easy as clicking one button

He is built into Facebook, so you don’t need to download/install/uninstall anything on your phone. Just chat him on Messenger or his Facebook page

Bus Uncle is also really, really fast

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Bus Uncle’s response time

In mid January 2017, even though thousands of users spoke to him daily, he was able to give each of them the one answer they were looking for in ~2 seconds.

User: Bus 107 at 01521 how long?

Bus Uncle: 5 mins, go confess your crush

all in 2 seconds.

The Reviews

“So entertaining! Love the bus uncle lah! Since Singaporeans are champion grumblers, I think an AI is the best for this” — Japhia Yeo

“Can uninstall all the other apps now. Yay for bus uncle!” — Ursula Soh

“Bus Uncle is the most creative & culturally relevant application of chatbot technology I have ever seen” — Oliver Woods

“Superb and fast response. Loving the bus uncle. Only can found in Singapore. Power la.” — David Loh

“He always replies faster than my boyfriend!” — Abby Ng

He has also been featured in

Tech In Asia | Vulcan Post | TODAY Newspaper | The Straits Times | GovTech | The New Paper | Smashing Magazine | Mothership.SG | Coconuts Singapore | Yellow Pages Singapore

Commuters in Singapore love Bus Uncle

What are you waiting for? Go talk to him now

The Bus Uncle website is up now, so check out the amazing things we have done with Bus Uncle. We are officially a business as well, and we provide marketing innovation and chatbot development for you company!

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