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Content at the T: How Customers Guide the Way

Katrina Langer
Mar 1, 2019 · 5 min read

Here on the Customer Technology team, we’re dedicated to improving the technology that powers public transit. Many people play important roles in our strategy: engineers, designers, product and project managers, and writers.

Wait — writers?

You bet! We make decisions about things as small as, “What should this button say?” and as big as, “How can we help people understand the T better?” Most of the time, we’re working in the background of big engineering projects — for example, in 2017, our team rewrote and migrated all the pages on MBTA.com from the old content management system to the new one.

As we wrapped that up, we knew there was still a lot of information about the system buried in old documentation, scattered around Wikipedia, and being debated on TripAdvisor and Reddit — and we knew there had to be a better way to share it with the public. But, how?

To be honest, we weren’t really sure at first. So, we dug into Google Analytics to see how people use our site, looked at how people search for and find pages on MBTA.com, sorted through the many pieces of feedback that came directly from customers, mined the depths of social media and transit blogs, and did some in-person interviews with the folks at the front lines of customer questions, MBTA Transit Ambassadors.

Getting to Know the T

On a very cold February morning last year, we visited a handful of stations to talk to some Transit Ambassadors (they’re the people in the red jackets). After a half-dozen interviews — and some hot chocolate from Dunkin Donuts — a pattern started to emerge: Answers to the most frequent questions often depend on who’s asking them.

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More often than not, when someone has a question, it is:

  • How do I buy a ticket for the train or bus?

So if someone asks, “What kind of pass should I get?” The answer could be: If you’re visiting Boston for a few days but won’t take the T much, you can load cash value onto a CharlieTicket. If you’re here for a week, a 7-day pass on a CharlieTicket or CharlieCard will work great. If you just moved here and plan to take the T every day for work, you want a monthly pass loaded onto a CharlieCard.

As you can see, a simple question can quickly require a complicated answer.

Moving Beyond FAQs

A typical way to solve this problem is to create a frequently asked questions page. To be frank, we’re not huge fans of FAQs, though they do play a valuable role in some spots (for example our Fares FAQ).

We wanted to create something more personal — people should feel welcome in Boston and on the T. So we thought beyond the FAQ and considered the Jobs to Be Done question.

The T is most confusing to people who aren’t regular customers, like visitors, folks who just moved here, and those who live in the area but rarely use the system.

So we decided to build a guide — featuring some frequently asked questions — that focused on helping them. We started with a Visitor’s Guide to the T, which included info on fares, navigating Boston, and how people with disabilities can use the system.

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From One User Guide to Many

We published the first guide at the end of August, and by October 1, with very little promotion, it got over 3,000 visits. More than half of those were from Google searches, and the rest came from social media, a few travel blogs, and websites for the City of Boston and Gillette Stadium.

Meanwhile, we published the Commuter Rail Beginner’s Guide. It also got about 3,000 visits in its first month.

In late October, we updated our homepage to promote these guides, and visits jumped. We were also able to write and publish the next 2 guides, Beginner’s Guide to the Bus and a Winter Travel Guide.

As of today, the Guides to the T have been visited more than 100,000 times — more than 35,000 of those to the Red Sox and Patriots victory parade guides.

They’re also picking up traction in organic search results, ranking in the top 3 pages for highly competitive queries like “boston visitors guide” and “boston visitor information.”

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On a scale of 1–5, customers give the guides an average rating of 4.4. And, since the guides are featured on websites people commonly visit before ending up on MBTA.com, we know that they’re helping people get the most out of their time in Boston — whether they’re visiting for a few days or have lived here a long time.

We’re also collecting data on which questions people are most interested in when they view one of our guides. For example, throughout the guides, people most often click on the questions about schedules and buying passes. We’ll be able to use this data to inform future educational and informational content on MBTA.com

If you’ve ever wondered what a writer does on a technology team, now you know! Stay tuned for more updates about how words and language play an important role in building tools and software.


Want to join the team that’s helping the T leverage technology? We’re looking for product managers and developers to help roll out improvements to our real-time data, API, digital signage, payment systems, and so much more. Come join us.

MBTA Customer Technology

We're a small group ready to make big tech changes at the…

Katrina Langer

Written by

Web and content strategy for MBTA Customer Technology.

MBTA Customer Technology

We're a small group ready to make big tech changes at the MBTA. Follow us to read about our plan, view updates, and get an early experience of a more user-friendly MBTA website.

Katrina Langer

Written by

Web and content strategy for MBTA Customer Technology.

MBTA Customer Technology

We're a small group ready to make big tech changes at the MBTA. Follow us to read about our plan, view updates, and get an early experience of a more user-friendly MBTA website.

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