Driving a business model with user needs

We're approaching the end of a very successful project and in this post we want to share some of the high level drivers for our future business model. Our underpinning rationale comes from unmet user needs which in turn indicate an opportunity still exists in the public transport information market which we're keen to exploit. 

Our research found that current mobile device Apps for public transport information do not meet diverse user needs nor are they flexible enough for many new commercial opportunities. On analysis we found this is caused by the dominance of two ubiquitous contemporary design approaches. 

The first is where constraints that undermine the user experience have been introduced by design for either technical or commercial reasons, one very common example being limiting public transport information by a specific geographic area or region. Another is only covering the timetable and realtime information for one specific transport service operator. Users of public transport don't think in these ways, they don't want to split a single journey into two or more journeys to suit the industry, and they almost never can carry an accurate mental model of a transport operators geographical range of services. 

The second is where transport information is treated as an extension of a global mapping application, for example a specific planning and guidance mode, forcing users to always consider public transport as extension of a mapping problem and to physically interact via a map even when they have no wish to do so.

By taking a user needs-led design approach to providing public transport information with the Commuter mobile App we found that we can redress fundamental design issues such as these. In doing so we address outstanding needs for total personal data privacy, graceful degradation to enable planning while offline, dynamic expansion of geographic regions, and customisation of journey plans.

We also demonstrate flexibility that can drive new business models. With one example we have shown how an Internet of Things (IoT) approach can contribute to driving down costs for local authorities in the provision of high quality transport services. For this Commuter integrated to the oneTRANSPORT platform for analysis of transport user digital survey data showing how organisations can benefit from user feedback through targeted travel surveys via Commuter while fully respecting end user anonymity, and dramatically lowering their costs through a digital replacement for fieldwork surveys.

By grounding the work in user needs we have discovered a solid basis for describing value in a crowded market, this gives us the start of a viable service offering.

App store release - Commuter

If you've been following the Smart Routing project you will be aware we planned to trial a new mobile App for public transport planning as one of the deliverables. Well amazingly the six month trial period is already half way complete now and we've recently made an important decision. With our Birmingham trial users of the App giving us the thumbs up we have made the decision to launch the aptly named "Commuter" iOS mobile App into the App store for anyone to use for free. If you use public transport across Great Britain you may find it refreshingly useful!

The download link is: Commuter - Live public transport door-to-door (GB)

As hinted at in an earlier blog on the subject we have focussed on providing a key differentiator for the App on attention to data privacy. With Commuter your current location, movements and journey plans, or any other personally identifiable data is locked securely inside the App on your device. 

This is part of our wish to find and demonstrate alternative business models that build in data privacy, hence with Commuter it’s your travel data, your private activity, it’s securely protected and we the makers cannot see it by design. 

In order to create an app such as this and support it there of course needs to be a sustainable business model behind it. We have many ideas for revenue some of which we are trialling in Birmingham right now. If you are interested in learning more please get in touch using the contact form - we are keen to collaborate and share the journey the project has taken us on to date.

Phew - the view from here is good !

We’ve trekked to the top of the mountain in our project now to begin our trial as planned in Birmingham at the start of July. We have an amazing team and everyone has risen to the challenge over the last year to get us here. In the next six months we’ll test the technology, the usability of designs, and the business potential of our smart routing approach to providing public transport information. Some of this is largely behind the scenes for the industry such as local authorities who can benefit from the oneTRANSPORT platform for transport data and analytics.

But perhaps most visible in the trial initially is the mobile App “Commuter” on which we’ll roll out key features over the period. Digital Birmingham have enlisted trial users for the app and we know we need their help as it’s only in the real day to day use of products that we can get to see how they help, or fail to help. For example we’re particularly aware that we’ve created a wholly new way to generate route plans between places using public transport and hence we expect this to need refinement over the trial as it is highly complex. It won’t be unusual for weird routes to crop up given the myriad of possibilities to get between to places in metropolitan areas like Birmingham.

But we’re confident that together with our users we can create a refined experience to build on what works now in what is an exciting start for the App:

  • door to door itinerary timing based on real live running times of services 
  • comparison of different routes by real-time itineraries
  • disruption alerts en route updated as you travel
  • public transport planning to any street address in Great Britain 
  • personalisation with custom routes and custom place naming
  • predicted routine journeys for example commuting to work, or college, and back

If you live in Birmingham and want to get involved in the trial please register interest via the Digital Birmingham site here: http://mailchi.mp/digitalbirmingham-mail/smart-routing-1091853

Privacy, Control, and Trust

In mid-March we met with the first testers of the Smart Routing app in Birmingham. In a four-hour workshop, we asked them to tell us about their experience of using the app, and their expectations, needs, and preferences for it as it evolves. The insights they provided were illuminating, and will help us to design and develop an app that is responsive to the needs they identified, and offers a service unmet by existing apps.

One of the key topics we discussed was that of personal data, and how it will be used within the app. Privacy and control of personal data are rapidly emerging as critical issues in app development, marketing, and use, and participants at our workshop raised a range of interesting questions for us:

·       What data will be collected?

·       For what will it be used?

·       With whom will it be shared?

·       How will that information be shared with us?

·       How much control do we have over all of the above?

Perhaps most importantly, however, they asked us: How will we know that we can trust what you tell us?

The concept of trust is significant in the app environment, as few of us know what really happens to our data once we’ve registered with and started using an app. High profile cases where data have been misused are becoming ever-more common, and the information we’re given about what will happen to our data is often buried in impenetrable privacy policies. But data privacy and control depend on establishing that trusted relationship.

We can’t control whether our users trust us or not. What we can do, however, is build privacy in from the ground up. Drawing from a Privacy by Design approach, we’re ensuring that we minimise the personal data we collect, set strict data access rights (by, for example, making sure that most data processing takes place on the phone), and work with our users to make sure that we’re developing a system that is responsive to their desires for control over how, with whom, and for what their data are used. How we communicate these practices will require a commitment to transparency, and development of an ongoing relationship with our users.

Addressing Public Transport User Needs

Post by: Dr Caitlin D. Cottrill, Centre for Transport Research, University of Aberdeen

My first experience on a bus in the UK (in 1997) was a trying time – jetlagged and unsure of prices, routes, or destinations, it took multiple leaflets, careful scrutiny of the posted schedules, and conversations with at least three drivers until I finally figured out where I needed to be, how I could get there, and how much it was going to cost me. On that first trip, I sat as close to the driver as the seats allowed, and anxiously hoped that he would remember to tell me when it was my stop.

Fast forward 20 years, and when I travel I pull out my smartphone from my pocket, hope I can get a signal, and start searching for the app that can point me in the right direction as accurately as my first driver did.

While some public transport users still look to leaflets, posted information, and driver expertise to help them on their way, I’m certainly not the only person who has started to increasingly rely on information technology to get me where I need to go. In a survey we conducted in October 2016 of over 900 public transport users in Birmingham (nearly 90% of whom own a smartphone), we found that about 79% of our respondents look to websites for travel information, while nearly 56% will look to a mobile app. With these figures far higher than any of the other sources of information queried, it’s evident that where we look for information on our travels is evolving along with our technology.

When we look for information is changing also. Mobile apps and websites have given us ever increasing opportunities to look for information as we travel – in response to disruption, because our plans change, or simply to reassure ourselves that we’re still on the right track. This, too, was evident in our survey – while 31% of respondents indicated that they look for information while at a stop or station, a further 55% reported looking while at home or work, and 15% while on-board public transport. The freedom to plan on the move, enabled by the availability of accurate and timely information, can help us make more efficient use of our time while travelling, better plan to meet people along the way, alert us to options we didn’t know existed, and give us the confidence we need to undertake unfamiliar journeys.

Of course, this freedom requires that we have accurate information, along with the ability to access it when and where needed. While over 80% of smartphone owners in our survey reported having an internet data plan, 36% reported that they worry they may run out of their data allowance – the last thing you want if making travel decisions away from home using a smartphone.

For Smart Routing, the survey’s revelations about user needs are clear – travel information that’s convenient, accessible, timely, and doesn’t use up our limited internet data plans. The Smart Routing project, by focusing on information collated from a wide range of trusted sources, enabling journey planning in your local travel area without access to the internet, and making it all available on a convenient, user-friendly platform, is working to make sure that other travellers don’t experience the same frustration and uncertainty I faced two decades ago.

Using service design to find a business model

The conjunction of free apps, open & big data, and rising digital talent means consumers and businesses are experiencing a 21st century rush of new exciting technology. But many new technologies don’t last for long - they just don’t find a business model that works - and with the failure rate at 90% we’re working hard on this to avoid being just another statistic.

More specifically we need a business model that competes. With many large cashed up information service providers such as Google, Apple, Moovit, City Mapper, et al, doing journey planning the benchmark is high. And consumer revenues are low - they can get these services for free. We did consider a free app model by taking advertising revenues but for transport planning we find that ads conflict with more pressing user needs, in particular for simple and clear journey information. Users just don't need ads using up screen space with confusing information - and paying to have ads removed puts the App in the non-free category so it doesn't compete. We also considered free download with in-app purchases but it's problematic - the very fact that value is withheld means for some users the app won’t meet their needs unless they pay. Free doesn’t actually exist here - it is a sales ploy - and many users simply experience an app that fails to meet their needs. 

So where to from there? And why do we want to compete with this smart journey planner thing again? 

Our project partners have a common shared mission in meeting user needs with innovative technology. Going back to these roots reminds us that our differentiation has to come from providing services that answer unmet needs, and these must equally drive both our proposed business model and the products we create. The importance of this service design approach is that we won’t simply invest in technology products only to find they have no marketplace need, or sustainable revenue stream, both the key reasons stated for startups to fail at the above 90% rate.

Over the last three months our service design work has pinpointed where several business models would fail us in the medium to long term, but also uncovered a business model that could give us a way to compete with the big players. And it has highlighted product features that we can use to address existing pain points and unmet user needs. In this way new product investment can be justified using the business model, and both are linked and grounded in measurable value using our service design.

Of course user research and market engagement only tell us so much so we're looking forward to trialling our new services with users and finding out if the business model is going to work. That's all planned for later this year so we're working on implementing these new service features over the coming few months of the project.  

Fitting needs into wheels and rails

Our work in this project rethinks how users plan for public transport journeys so we started by reviewing user needs around their travel. We found that while a few people can think of public transport needs driven from their own complex lifestyle this isn't the norm - most people state their very basic needs such as knowing how to get from A to B, and what the fare is.

This may be a result of users having low expectations of what is possible due to historical experience, and a strong awareness of the industrial nature of these services - like bricks and mortar, they're built on wheels and rails. By thinking of these services in terms of their constraining brute physicality users may hide their own wider personal needs. An example of these wider expansive needs is "I need to leave the house in time to catch the bus but not so early that I’m standing for a long time waiting in the cold weather, or skip breakfast.” However these personal needs rarely rise to the top, instead users get stuck on fundamentals, for example "I need the train to be on time”, intuiting that like a rule, a timetable can and will be broken.

We noted that personal needs when obtained provide the existing system with real challenges, for example: the need to get to work ten minutes earlier today, or to have 99.9% guaranteed arrival to collect my child from school by 4.45pm at the latest, or to have extra protection from the cold due to being unwell. These are the genuine, complex needs of real travellers that vary from day to day, and week to week, that they largely suppress when considering public transport.

We also observed that intermittent needs arise from unanticipated variations in public transport services. For example, a traveller taking a 2 hour train journey in the evening where they intend to purchase food and water for an evening meal from the onboard canteen. Where the canteen is closed for operational reasons the traveller has a new need to purchase food and water from the station prior to departure, or they will get caught out.

It is clear to us that within both the hidden personal needs, and unplanned intermittent needs, of public transport users lie great opportunities to deliver better public transport services. Now in this project we are turning towards design and are excited about the possibilities of how smart routing technology can help address these needs regardless of the constraints of wheels and rails. 


Planning with rhythm

There’s a strong momentum building from our work over the first six weeks. We have multiple streams of work and a geographically disparate set of five teams so it’s really great to see the project settle into a rhythm. 

The musical term rhythm has the same power of establishing shared timing when working to a plan. Recurring meetings in the calendar can be brilliant as patterns are easy to remember, but if the frequency is too often, or too little they can create a negative impact on individual work and team culture. Getting this right at the beginning means that people quickly get to know whats going on, getting it wrong means you’ll lose that pattern recognition. 

We have an 18 month long project, and some of the frequencies we’ve been asked to meet and others we’ve guessed are right are:

  • Whole team discussion on current activities - weekly
  • Light touch progress checks - 6 weekly
  • Formal project reporting - quarterly
  • Advisory group discussion - quarterly

Beyond frequency, relative timing, or sequence, is the other facet of rhythm and choosing how far in advance an event happens compared to another can similarly impact or help the project. It’s harder to get this right but easier to alter as well so we're expecting to tweak these more through the project. Again, some examples for us are:

  • Financial progress checks (actual against forecast) - 1 month prior to quarter end
  • Advisory group discussion - 1 week prior to formal project monitoring meeting
  • Formal project reporting - 3 weeks after quarter end

Maybe if you’re planning a similar project you’ll find these useful as a starter, either way we’d encourage you to set a rhythm that suits your team and scale of project. It certainly makes delivery easier and more enjoyable.

Project kick off

After six months of working together from conceptual idea through to detailed project costings and legal commercial relationships, we have begun our project, Smart Routing.

Without external funding we didn't have a chance of doing this innovative work, so we're very pleased to be recipients of an Innovate UK grant to help with the costs of the work. 

We all met in Birmingham to start things off and meet our monitoring officer on the 1st July. The project will now run for 18 months up to the end of 2017, by the end of which we'll have designed new algorithms, developed new software, exposed new data sources, integrated between systems, researched user needs, created mobile Apps, designed business models, and run trials with real users.

We'll have to wait to know whether we've been successful, but plenty to get on with...