Design Critique: Subway Time

MTA Subway Time App

Do I have time to grab a coffee, or do I need to start sprinting? The MTA’s Subway Time app is the official solution to that eternal dilemma, serving as a mobile extension of the underground train timers. While it succeeds in presenting useful information, actually using Subway Time can often be tedious and frustrating.

First Suggestion: Streamline the Tasks

Swipe down every time to find your stop! Hope its not South Ferry…

Swipe down every time to find your stop! Hope its not South Ferry…

One of Norman’s key principles of design is simplifying the structure of tasks, an area in which Subway Time has some room for improvement. Reviewer Txakolina says in the App Store that “[the app] works, but I hate that I have to select my line and station EVERY TIME.” This underlines one of the key problems of the app: the inability to select favorite, nearby, or regular train lines. Most riders will have a few stops they regularly use depending on where they work or live, which means they’ll generally need information on a couple of stops, not all of them. By presenting a user’s most frequent stops, or allowing them to select favorites, users of the app will be saved the effort of constantly navigating through to the same stops over and over.

Second Suggestion: Provide the Same Experience

The countdown clock should be familiar to riders

The countdown clock should be familiar to riders

Riders of the lines supported by Subway Time will likely be familiar with the timers you see on the platforms. They’ll tell you how long the next train will be at the specific stop you’re at: a simple, straightforward process that doesn’t need to show any location-specific information. From that system image, riders understand that the information is easily available, because they don’t need to think beyond “when’s my next train?”.

With Subway Time functioning as an extension of the platform timers, it is important to keep the flow the same (as seemingly straightforward as it is). By utilizing the GPS data to recommend timers of the nearest available trains, Subway Time would be able to keep that task flow both simplified and similar to user images that have been informed by the physical timers.

Third Suggestion: Plan for Errors

Whats going on here?

Whats going on here?

As a regular rider of the 1 train, I’m familiar with all of the potential service changes that occur due to construction, repairs, or problems (really, this applies to any regular rider of public transit). At the time of this post, I happened to know the 1 train wasn’t running due to regular weekend work, though looking at Subway Time, you’d never know.

No information is provided for my stop, leaving me with a handful of questions: do I have service? is the app broken? is there something wrong with the train? With no information, a user like me is lost, knowing no more than when they started the task. By providing either a message or indication that there is a change in service, a user would be able to make an informed decision on whether or not they need to make changes to their travel plans.

There’s clearly some great information behind Subway Time, and I’m hoping to see some of these suggestions addressed in future version. If nothing else, I’m glad to see they’re happy to share the data!