Redesigning Public Transit at the MARTA Hackathon

Chalen Duncan
Oct 4, 2017 · 6 min read
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Our redesigned MARTA app

Mass adoption of public transportation is a vital step toward respecting our environment. Cutting down on auto traffic is about more than just reduced carbon emissions — it also means less accidental deaths, less wasted land, and increased social empathy.

Atlanta’s MARTA transit system has struggled with attracting new riders in the USA’s 4th most congested city. To help solve the problem, MARTA and Code for Atlanta joined forces to host a hackathon. My team of four decided to step back from code and examine the core user experience of MARTA’s mobile app. Throughout the 24-hour competition we built out wireframes, assembled a prototype, and conducted usability tests aboard MARTA trains.

My team came away with a compelling design that improves the app’s user experience by making functions pleasurable and accessible. Perhaps more importantly, I came away with new friends and field experience on a lean team.

The Problem

The current MARTA app is a chore to use. The fastest path to useful information requires a staggering three taps from the launch screen. At the hackathon, a MARTA engineer affectionately referred to the current app as “that great 90’s app that we had put out before.”

Our #1 goal over the course of the hackathon is to enhance discoverability and usefulness in the current MARTA app.

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The current app, from

Another problem lies in emotional design. MARTA’s gorgeous retro branding is no-where to be found within the app. The gold color employed by the app’s headers and tab bar isn’t the correct shade of MARTA gold and is visually jarring.

The app’s current appearance isn’t reflective of the immense love that goes into other aspects of MARTA, so bringing things back on brand was a huge priority going into the project.

“The MARTA brand is smart, warm & friendly, dependable and helpful. We believe everything we do graphically can directly or indirectly convey the flavor of our vision.”

Ideation — Learning From the Best

Rather than reinvent the wheel, our team formed a collaborative idea board with screens from tons of successful transit apps. As the UX designer for the UGA app, I already had a few pages of transit apps on my iPhone. By taking successful designs from existing apps, MARTA app features can be more intuitive and more useful for riders.

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GT Buses, by students at The Georgia Institute of Technology

GT Buses launch screen was one huge inspiration for us. It clearly shows your location, stops near you, and real-time data on when the next bus will arrive.

Real-time and location-based data are thrust to the forefront, no navigating required.

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TransitDB on the Google Play Store

Vancouver public transit’s TransitDB app on Android was another influence. When conducting user research at MARTA stations, we found that the multi-column approach to displaying schedule information was preferred by riders.

It may not be the sexiest way to display information (we saved that for the live maps) but, for riders looking for raw data in a format that’s easy to understand at a glance, multi-column displays are a great choice.

User Testing

To ensure our redesigns were hitting their mark, we produced a minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible. We mapped a common user flow, typed out some questions, stitched our wireframes together, and brought a working Marvel prototype to MARTA stations and onto the train.

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Jeremy conducting some user testing with regular MARTA riders (we asked the little girl first but she wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers)

We asked 6 riders to find a specific stop, find when their train was arriving, and find a specific bus route. They accomplished these in our redesigned app, then did the same tasks in the current MARTA app.

Rather than just relying on user’s feedback, we kept our eyes glued to the screen the whole time. Observation gave us some really valuable insight on where different users expect to be able to tap or otherwise interact to navigate.

Conducting user testing early on in the hackathon gave us a huge advantage. We were able to identify issues with the app and focus in on what riders found useful.

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User testing at Five Points Station

One example of an easy fix was our bus route summary screen. Following material design guidelines, we used a tab bar to organize information about route schedules. In testing we realized that some users were tapping some plain-text that said “Weekdays” to view the weekday schedule instead of following our intended behaviour — tapping on the “Weekdays” tab in the tab bar.

Rather than corral users into following our intended paths, we simply added tapping the plain-text as another easy way to navigate between the tabs.

Our Redesign

The MARTA app has some really valuable data from live-tracking trains and buses. From our user interviews we found that this data was most commuter’s only reason for using the app. Unfortunately, this data doesn’t play to the app’s advantage when it’s hidden away behind a minimum of three taps.

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The “Nearby” and “Planner” tabs in our redesigned MARTA app

Our redesign brings the MARTA app’s most useful features to center-stage. The new launch screen, “Nearby,” shows real-time, location-based data for buses and trains. “Trip Planner,” a great feature from MARTA’s desktop website, is brought in to help new MARTA passengers easily navigate the extensive network of trains and buses.

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Our peachy clean redesign of the Buses tab

In approaching the redesign for the “Bus” tab, we created a new summary tab highlighting critical information for stops and routes. We also split different schedules for weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays to increase discoverability of these schedules while avoiding massive blocks of information.

A new map feature takes advantage of MARTA’s real-time GPS data to display information in an easy-to-understand way.

Wrapping Up

Our goal throughout the hackathon was to improve the MARTA app’s user experience. We went through each step of the design process by conducting user research, wire framing on paper then digitally, performing usability tests using an interactive prototype, iterating, and iterating again.

We came away from the hackathon with a compelling redesign that focuses on presenting important information in a straightforward way. Through talking to users we gained empathy for the many problems of navigating public transit in the 21st century. By addressing riders’ needs and desires, our redesign improves usability while providing a more positive experience.

If you’d like to check out some more screens from the app, please explore an early prototype here.

Thanks so much for reading! As a budding designer, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Feel free to clap up to 50 times!

If you or someone you know is hiring, I’d love to talk! I recently graduated with a Masters and I’m looking to get my hands dirty.

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