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Dec 14 / Nick Fassler

By Nick Fassler, Google

Design Thinking for Mobility in Ann Arbor

Storyboard of New Prototype Bus e-Service

After hearing more and more about design thinking over the last couple years and then visiting a few of the Bay Area’s finest design firms, I decided to take BIT 678: Service Innovation Management at Ross. The class is taught by Nigel Melville, a leader in the research on carbon and energy management software, and helps students develop e-services using a design thinking approach to problem solving.

While most business school projects start with a clearly defined problem (e.g. “How do we sell more of this widget?”), design thinking recognizes that we need to dig deeper to find out what the problem actually is (e.g. “Do people even need this widget?”). To help us go deeper, we used a design thinking model called Service Innovation Design (SID) that is broken into four phases: Explore; Discover; Concept & Design; and Implement & Assess.

For this class, our group was tasked with developing an e-service solution that could improve mobility in the Ann Arbor region. We decided to narrow that focus by concentrating on bus transit for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA).


The explore phase uses a human-centered approach to researching a design problem. This was by far the most interesting, and most awkward part of our project. By taking on the role of an ethnographer or anthropologist, it is much easier to experience and understand the problems people actually face. But what this meant was spending two weeks sneaking around the bus terminal and bus stops, riding the bus while snooping on other riders, conducting lots of interviews, and peering over people’s shoulders as they tried to use the bus website.

AATA Virtual Bus Map

Yes, Please Restart Now (Photo of TheRide Virtual Bus Map at the Ann Arbor Blake Transit Center)

My first task was to visit the Blake Transit Center, which is Ann Arbor’s bus transit hub. It felt a little weird to linger around the station much longer than your average traveler, but I acted as a “fly on the wall” observing the bus station and travelers. I noticed one of the displays in the station perhaps attempting to show where the buses were (pictured above). Yes, that is a Windows automatic update restart on the screen. And if you can’t read the bus numbers, you aren’t alone – it was almost impossible to see from further than three feet away. The other display (not pictured) attempted to show the updated bus arrival time, and unfortunately failed at that task as well (What does “adherence: +1” mean?). It wasn’t just me that was bothered by this, I witnessed a number of passengers struggle to make sense of the screens, just to give up and ask the station attendant.

I also “shadowed” someone while they planned a trip using, AATA’s website. I was surprised that they had a fairly robust trip planning tool, but then was let down again when I witnessed a number of major errors and confusion points throughout their site.

Map FAIL (Planning a trip using

The hardest part of the explore phase was being careful about assumptions (we thought an iPhone app would be useful, but witnessed very few riders with smartphones), and also not jumping to solutions at this point. The key insights necessary for design thinking come from careful observation and suspension of judgment, neither of which are part of the normal MBA tool set.


It’s not clear exactly when the explore phase is done, but at some point we needed to begin synthesizing what we learned from from our observations (luckily, design thinking is an iterative process, so you can always go back).

At this point in our research, we realized there were a few basic types of bus riders: super users (that take the bus everywhere), static users (or commuters), sporadic users, and non-users. To help us become intimate with these types of users, and to be able to bring users into the design process, we developed a number of character profiles based on actual users we interviewed.

Based on some of these insights, we attempted to determine some potential answers to the statement, “A new or better e-service would ___.” We had a number of ideas, here are a few:

  • Let you know the next two stops while your on the bus
  • Let you know what landmarks are located at the next bus stop
  • Provide real-time bus progress updates and ETA’s
  • Have accurate, detailed and customizable maps for each route
  • Tell you about bus stop conditions and amenities

Concept & Design

With some key insights from our discover phase, we moved on to brainstorming ideas and prototyping some possible solutions. We used some fun brainstorming techniques including reverse brainstorming, where we tried to figure out what ideas would make Ann Arbor transit e-services worse. To practice this technique in our class, we imagined how we could break Facebook by getting rid of privacy controls, letting people know when you un-friend them, or filling the site with obtrusive ads. We also did a lot of normal brainstorming using sticky notes and trying to follow IDEO’s brainstorming principles (which mimic most other brainstorming principles). Based on the number of sticky notes we’ve used on this project and their prevalence at design firms everywhere, I’m guessing the popularity of design thinking has been good for 3M’s stock price.

Next, we tried to create some low-fidelity prototypes using our limited sketching abilities and some craft materials. What came out was a pretty interesting idea for a bus screen that would visually show riders where they were, what stops were next, when they would get there, and what was around them. We also developed a fun website concept called “MyRide”, where you book or plan your bus routes and can receive auto-updates based on that ride.

Implement & Assess

Unfortunately, our class doesn’t include implementing our ideas, and is more about helping us practice the concepts of design thinking to apply in the real world at another point. We did however have a guest speaker from IDEO’s Chicago office visit us to speak to us about some of the interesting projects they have launched (including the PNC Virtual Wallet).

But I am hopeful that AATA will be doing a lot in the coming years to improve many aspects of the transit system in Ann Arbor, especially with their development of a 30-year vision for transit in Washtenaw County. Not many governments plan past the 2-year election cycle, so that is pretty impressive.

Further Reading

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