Digitizing a complex paper process for tracking trains. 

 

Challenge

Digitize a paper process used by officials to track Green Line trains, manage headways, and manage personnel.


Role

Research, Interaction Design, UI


MVP

This version of the train sheet was released to test and gather feedback from pull-out inspectors on its usefulness.

It had limited functionality and navigation, proving difficult for inspectors to use and becoming burdensome.

The MVP was, as MVP’s go, bare-bones. It needed to be released fast and we knew we’d get a chance in a month or so to revisit the design, so our focus was not on making it usable—it just needed to work, period.

The train sheet’s main purpose for the Glides app at the time was to connect Green Line cars with who was driving them. We needed the information that was getting recorded on paper to be piped into our app somehow, and the quickest and dirtiest way to do it was to make a lightweight version of the actual train sheets.

Since the digital train sheets weren’t going to be a system of record (for now, at least), the only inputs included on the digital version were the time of the actual departure, the car number, and the badge numbers of each operator.

Before we arrived at this point, we explored many options. How might it look on a tablet? What happens if you try to squeeze every bit of functionality the train sheets have onto a piece of paper?


Digital Train Sheet — MVP

After using this version for about a month, we gathered feedback from inspectors that informed the next iteration of the train sheet.

 
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The most common feedback we received was:

1—Arriving and departing trips need to be more distinct.

2—It’s hard to read—the text is too small and needs more contrast.

3—There needs to be an easier way to scroll to the correct trip.


Solution

A lightweight, pared-down version of the paper process.

TLDR; Train sheets are important tools used for managing headways, ensuring service runs on schedule, and mitigating unexpected service disruptions.

Terminal stations of the branches of Boston’s Green Line each have a transit official (called a pull-out inspector) tasked with keeping trains running on schedule. Part of this job is recording vehicle and operator information on train sheets. Every scheduled trip for the day is meant to be tracked on this sheet. Officials record the actual departure times of trips as well as car numbers for vehicles assigned to a trip and any changes to scheduled personnel.


Research findings

At it’s core, Glides is a custom tool built in partnership with the transit officials who run the Green Line. The research on train sheets was done in two parts: an initial research phase to better understand the purpose and usage of train sheets which informed and MVP, and a second phase with updates made based on user feedback.

Pull-out inspectors are constantly multi-tasking and shifting contexts.

In a given five minutes, a pull-out inspector is signing in an operator, telling operators when their next trip is, calling a line inspector to give updates on a trip that’s late, calling dispatch to get the location of an incoming arriving train, running out of their booth to prepare a train, recording all departures and arrivals on train sheets, and telling operators that sorry, they can’t take a bathroom break, their trip leaves in the next 30 seconds.

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It’s crucial for pull-out inspectors to know where incoming trains are.

Since they’re located at terminal stations, pull-out inspectors are responsible for turning an “arriving train” (or a train at the end of it’s trip) into a departure again. It’s important for them to keep an eye on arriving trains in the case that an incoming train intended to become a departure gets delayed.

Before Glides, pull-out inspectors had to rely on paper train sheets and guesswork to track arriving trains. Doing so required flipping back and forth through papers and scanning them to find one tiny nugget of relevant information.

If an official wanted to find train locations in another way, they’d either have to ask the operator on the radio channel used by the entire Green Line, or call another official who’s watching trains along the line. Some officials would use a 3rd party app, but only on their personal phones and using their own data plans.


Ideation

Surface crucial information and make navigation effortless.

I wrote out the key decision-making points a pull-out official faces throughout the day. During this process, I came to realize that pull-out inspectors are most often making decisions about things in the present or near-future.

This pivoted the train sheet design far away from its paper counterpart, which shows a zoomed-out view of train trips. The digital version would instead surface the information most relevant to a pull-out inspectors’ needs, add some dynamic information, and hide the rest.

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Departing and arriving trips need to be distinct.

Pull-out inspectors interact with arrivals differently than departures, so making them visually distinct at a glance was key to making the navigation effortless.

We learned through interviews that it’s very rare for a pull-out inspector to edit information saved to an arrival, so I tried various ways of condensing arrivals or separating them from from departures altogether and showed them to pull-out inspectors for feedback.

After showing a variety of options to pull-out inspectors, I got feedback that arrivals should not be entirely hidden; seeing the next scheduled trip for operators on an arriving train is a necessary part of ensuring that an upcoming departure trip will arrive on-time.

 
 

Leveraging real-time information would simplify the train sheet process.

Pull-out inspectors must always know where the next 3 incoming arrival trains are. Not keeping track of incoming arrivals puts them at risk of not having trains for upcoming departures, causing a significant disruption in service.

Keeping track of incoming arrivals (before Glides) involved calling someone who had their location: A dispatcher in the operations control center, an inspector out on the line who is watching the trains, or sometimes the operator themselves.

It was clear that the new train sheet design needed to leverage the real-time location of trains—information that Glides was already providing to inspectors in the train location view.


Result

Actionable information is at the forefront.

Naturally, turning an 8x11 sheet of paper with size 10 font into a legible, easily navigable mobile version required strict feature prioritization. The new train sheets hide redundant information for arriving trains that’s rarely used by pull-out inspectors, and add important information that was missing in the MVP (like an operator’s next trip).

 
glides-train-sheet @2x.png
 

Real-time locations of arriving trains are shown.

Instead of guessing when a train is going to arrive, or radioing a dispatcher, pull-out inspectors can effortlessly keep track of incoming arrivals.

Actual departing and arriving times of trains are recorded automatically.

Pull-out inspectors can now spend less time on filling out paperwork, and more time on managing headways and ensuring that trains are departing on-time.