Peculiar Activities of Commuters — User Research at a Transit Station

Westlake Station in downtown Seattle. My base of operations for my research!

What I Researched, and Why I Did So

The focus of this week wasn’t on specifically designing as other weeks have been, but rather on practicing research tactics that become the foundation for well-informed design processes. I was tasked with studying different behaviors associated with people commuting by bus and light rail, and so I spent my time observing the many people at rush hour passing through Westlake Station — the busiest station in Seattle. I recorded over 40 behaviors and described the people associated with these behaviors for context; these include observing two men sleeping on a bench and a woman mistakenly going down an escalator moving up. However, my goal was not to find amusing observations, but observations that could reveal design problems within the station and warrant further investigation.

Why I Liked It

Personally, I enjoyed going out and being a quiet observer amongst the crazy rush hour crowd. It opened my eyes to the many different sorts of activities occurring in this station; not only paying fares and hopping on buses, but reading books, sleeping, asking questions to security, and so on. I also found the potential worth of this type of field research within the human-centered design process. While controlled experimental setups such as usability tests may invite lurking biases that affect participant behavior — such as time pressure and stress — simple observations of people from a distance can capture behaviors that are better representative of normal actions, which is invaluable when trying to estimate the needs of your users.

Jottings of the activities I witnessed; the diagram in the lower-right corner was my attempt at visualizing the scene where the woman takes the wrong escalator down.

What the Future Holds

This research was a joy to work on, and I look forward to conducting more observational studies for future projects. User research like this would be most insightful for investigating resources or spaces that are used by a diverse range of people. For instance, in a space like Westlake Station where a large transportation hub lies underneath a bustling commercial district, people of many backgrounds and statuses come and go through the station and it’s important that the functionality of the space is accessible and easy to understand for anyone to use. This type of research is also practical if time and resources are too tight in a project to run usability tests for large samples of people, meaning more individuals are covered this way with only a fraction of the effort it takes to conduct tests. Now I am curious to try out a similar research study in another light rail station and compare the two experiences; I wonder if people at the International District station trip over escalators and sleep on benches as much as those in Westlake…