In Chicago, most of the mobile apps that give information about public transportation do only one or two things. Mainly, they tell you when the next bus or
train is coming to a given stop. It's quite handy, but what if the app could do more?
For instance, what if it could include a stop at a coffee shop in your daily route to work? Or included hyperlocal weather reports? What it if could enable
you to remotely pay your fare?
Those possibilities are all proposed on Designing Chicago's Kickstarter pitch for a new app for Chicago
Transit Authority riders, but it's worth noting that they're all "coulds," not "wills." Before George Aye, co-creator of the project and co-founder of
Greater Good Studio, can say what the features will be, he and his design team must find out what riders really need.
"If we were to just design an application on our own, then merely go through the traditional software development process…that would not produce a
truly groundbreaking app," he says.
Through Kickstarter, Aye and the team are seeking volunteers who can help dig out the key features and make something revolutionary.
Traditionally, developers create their apps "in a cave" of sorts, Aye says, where user feedback enters the process only at the end. When developers aim to
incorporate user experience into the development process, it's usually embodied in interviews or surveys. Aye says he wants to go beyond that.
"We wanted to make it a little more of a teacherly experience," he says.
So here's the plan: Designing Chicago will recruit what it calls urban scouts and urban icons to watch videos, assigning them tasks to help them learn all
they can about the CTA. For instance, they might have a conversation with a bus or train operator, go to O'Hare airport and help a tourist find his or her
way around, talk to other CTA riders, or just get lost in the city.
"What tools do you use when you don't have the tools you normally rely on?" Aye wonders.
The researchers will take photos and notes of their experiences and report the information back to the developers. Designing Chicago will catalog all that
info in a big database.
Once the data is compiled over a six-week span, the design team will print everything out and work with the urban icons to find patterns among the
findings. Those patterns will serve as the basis for the app.
Aye is quick to point out the project is "user-centered," rather than "user-led."
It's easy to be misled by the "impassioned wants" of individuals, he says, but by finding patterns in a crowd's observations, the team can determine what
people genuinely need.
"Whenever there's a very wildish want, there's probably a hidden need inside of it," Aye says. "By addressing one need, we'll actually address many, many
Aye says he chose Kickstarter for the project because of its "very prominent position in the crowdsourcing and crowdfunding category." It was a natural
option, he says.
"We felt like we really needed to design something from the ground up with riders in mind, and that we needed rider input from the very beginning," Aye
says. "We realized that crowd-funding might not only be a moment where people can pledge their money, but perhaps at the same moment we can ask them,
'Would you also like to be involved in the design?'"
The funding part hasn't really come through. The project was more than $100,000 away from its $125,000 goal with less than a week to go in its 30-day
funding period. Kickstarter projects that don't reach their funding goals don't receive any of the pledged money.
Designing Chicago has been advised that $125,000 is a reasonable figure for app development costs, Aye says.
"We feel that perhaps we've overburdened Kickstarter in doing those two pieces together," he says.
The crowdsourcing part has worked out pretty well, though, reaching about 360 backers who may participate in the research to get the app off the ground.
Indeed, one Kickstarter reward for pledging is an invitation to participate.
For funding, Aye says he'll look elsewhere. Partnerships through the project's advisory board as well as through Kickstarter itself will serve as a
starting point for a more traditional financing model, he says.
"The project is going to continue, but it's going to have to morph into a different type of project," Aye says.
Official or not?
Aye once served as a designer for the CTA, but Designing Chicago's efforts are not officially endorsed by the government agency, he says. A few CTA
officials do serve on the project's advisory board, but they must take care not to pick favorites among the developers who make apps that use CTA bus and
Still, Aye still feels a bit of a compulsion to make the app Designing Chicago ultimately creates an official CTA app. "There is a part of me that wants to
just gift it to the CTA," he says.
Follow Matt Wilson on Twitter @MattAtRagan.