Revamping DMRC: Service Design flaws & UX solution for the same

Dilli ka Dill ( Delhi’s Heart )

Being one of 5.064 million commuters that use the Delhi Metro daily to reach their destinations. I knew how big a deal it is for Delhi and its functioning; it’s one of the cleanest and safest ways to travel around the capital and surrounding NCR region. And like the capital, the trains have an aura formed due to a different array of people belonging to several beliefs, cultures, ethnicities and sometimes even different nationalities all tucked inside one train, which also is a small part of an army of 336 trains that run daily across 10 different lines. But sometimes many people are left out, and these are the ones who can benefit from the metro and the metro can also benefit from them as well. Most of the left out people also belong to marginalized groups, have special needs, or can benefit a lot by using the Delhi Metro in their routine.

But the real question comes is why are these groups especially the ones with special needs left out? Even with a design system, DMRC is praised for then why are there so many perplexed commuters everywhere? When I as a designer decided to prompt and understand the whole system, I found the system needed an update especially in terms of user experience in order to make its service and workflow smoother, comfortable, and accessible to an even larger audience.

I decided to do proper research into the DMRC’s system, probe into issues and create a design-based solution to optimise the commuter as well as staff experience inside the whole system. The system needed human-centered solutions for the current problems especially in terms of navigation and in-depth research was needed in order to make sure we’re solving the right problems before devising the right solutions for them.

The design process would be carried as follows:-

The idea of this project came when I was approached by several confused commuters who mostly were in the elder age category and had problems regarding the navigation inside the DMRC.

Elderly Uncle :- Beta Samaypur Badli konsi line pe hai? (on which line is the Samaypur Badli Station located ?)

These were the questions I faced by several commuters over a span of few weeks and the elder person who asked the above question was actually at the same station he was asking directions for. Recalling several moments I had in past especially with helping elder family members in using Delhi Metro and hearing similar stories from my colleagues. It was needed to categorise users from the start on the basis of their age, special needs, and even nationality.

After interviewing several users, It was noted that few old users exclaimed DMRC was actually more accessible in earlier phases and with less crowd and they’re still able to help special needed users efficiently if there is less crowd on those stations. The DMRC staff also was observed to offer a better experience to the commuters; this isn’t usually seen in other government-run workspaces. But the problem has gotten worse over time with the higher crowd and more phases of the metro being completed.

Accessibility comes as an issue when the very issue of colour grading the whole system over the phases of metro development has led many visually special needed people to have a hard time deciding their path in the system. Accessibility comes as an issue when most of the elevators are hard to reach or hidden in the first place. The metro tackles this issue with good staff service but staff are humans as well and can be overwhelmed especially with a huge crowd to deal with and this problem can especially be seen at interchanges stations like Rajiv Chowk, Kashmere Gate, etc.

Apart from this, it was even seen that DMRC uses mainly English and Hindi for the text present inside the stations. Having two languages is actually better than opting for several languages in order to avoid visual clutters in boards and other graphic elements present throughout and these two languages are widely spoken by almost every individual in Delhi but a common problem was seen with the Hindi about it not being much easier to read.

Devanagri typography and other Indian texts are far more compressed compared to Latin typography. This type of typography poses a challenge in the case of boards meant for the public to read and understand. It should also be noted that most of the elderly population that also suffers from poor eyesight are usually more fluent in Hindi ( in Delhi ) than they are in English.

It was needed to plot the user’s experience, find the front-end interactions within the system as channels as well and see how much they interact with each step. So I decided to plot ‘User Journey maps’ for 8 users with each being quite different from each other in terms of needs and age.

Note:- Remember to slide the Journey Maps in order to compare

The above journey maps are usually observed when the commuter takes a route which they’re not used to, they almost faced no problems in going on their usual route even in the case of users with special needs ( even users who relied completely on the staff were comfortable on their usual routes ).

In order to understand the system even better, I needed to bodystorming sessions with the system and get insights as a researcher inside the system. There were various problems that were identified. First I’ll like to discuss my journey to ‘Rajouri Garden Metro Station’ a place I’ve never been to before. The whole journey was documented in the form of ‘User Flow’ and pain points were recorded no matter how big or minor they were.

The insights from my journey as a young general commuter were quite similar to the general personas mentioned before and problems were limited to mostly not being able to read or find signboards in heavy crowd conditions.

But there were few things that I noticed for example many of the design elements were similar to look at but had different functioning. I will call this thing as being ‘ Inconsistent at being consistent ‘ ( Read again…slowly ). Problems with elements being similar in look but different in functions imply that many users instead of being cautious or being attentive to their new surroundings, in this case, a new route to a new station they’ve never been to before can actually have bad outcomes since users instead of trying to understand the new identity will most probably follow the new elements as per their previous experience with old elements they’re used to. This phenomenon was seen mostly in station plannings and LED route maps inside coaches. For example in the graphic given below:-

LED Route maps are one of the most highly interacted elements found inside the metros, almost every commuter looks up to these design elements in order to navigate, get information about where they’re right now on the given line and stations between their destination. The oldest line in the DMRC is the Red line, the route maps inside the red line coaches are printed visuals and users can find where they are by reading the black LED screens where the next station announcements and other alerts are given followed by auditory alerts for the same.

The yellow and blue lines operate just like Red but have LED lights instead of White Dots. Red LED indicates stations that have been already covered by the train before, blinking green indicates station which train is about to approach, static green indicates the station where the train is currently, black or deactivated LED represents the station will approach later on in the route and finally blinking red LED represents the terminating station for the train. ( not always the last-most station on the route, ex:- Samaypur Badli is the one of two last most station at yellow line yet you’ll notice trains that only go till Vishwavidhyalaya and blinking red LED is noticed at it as well.

The problem with new lines like for the example with the Violet is the design element is actually quite similar to lines before but functioning was opposite where Red LED now indicates stations train will approach, Orange represents station train is currently at, blinking Orange represents the station train is about to approach and finally Green represents the stations train will cover on its route.

This is one of many reasons many people I interviewed and I myself had problems with the Violet line. The new lines like Magenta and Pink had different problems but actually tackled the above issue gracefully, the new route maps inside coaches weren’t just a line with few dots on it; it was instead followed by arrows that even specified even more specified location of metro in between the route.

The only issue was commuter had with these were how screens showed full route map only for screen time for 5 seconds once in a period of 25–27 seconds which mostly contained advertisements and other metro alerts.

A similar issue can be seen in the station’s overall design and planning as well. Though unlike the case of route maps/graphic elements, the reasons ranged from anything to local geography to even political scenarios during construction.

Other reasons like a pandemic may not alter the construction planning of stations but can change how the station operates; example:- Many stations during pandemic only allowed few exits to be opened for the public and unfortunately many of them didn’t have temporary signage to guide users to correct exits.

Analysing the sketches all 67 of them, the following data was noted :-

Observing the whole system and design elements present inside the DMRC, it was easy to deduce that incorrect placements of maps, screens, and other graphic elements resulted in most of the cognitive load on commuters followed by design elements being ‘inconsistent at being consistent’ resulted commuters to confuse new design elements with different working with the old ones.

The problems in user experience and element layouts in the system cannot be solved by a good staff service alone. Yet we also cannot change whole station layouts and arrange coaches with better element placements without expecting major inconvenience to Delhi's crowd, large funds, and lots of time invested to it.

For the solution it’s much better to look at small objects we can work upon since any major change is likely not going to possible without larger negative outcomes caused by the time-inducing project. It’s much convenient to let users be independent and let staff focus most of their attention on the commuters with special needs that need extra care ( complete blindness, wheelchair ridden, etc ) as before. It was decided that the most optimum solution to make commuters be able to guide themselves and understand the system is via a specialised mobile app. By analysing the points and observations said above it was deduced:-

  1. DMRC can benefit a lot from using Character Designing and re-designing their earlier mascot. A good mascot can actually help in effectively communicating a correct message to the viewers even if they’re not able to read or understand the text associated with it. Implementing this across various graphics found across DMRC for the purpose of public alerts or notices can help in further communicating the right message.
  2. While working on a mobile app, one must take technical constraints as well especially when most of the target audience has a smartphone in the economical range. The app should also not use a huge amount of network data to function; thus features that require features present in higher range smartphones or are data thirsty should not be taken into our consideration.
  3. Seeing how many users operate their phones on the go along with one hand usage, a heat mapping is required in this case along with a prioritisation scale to let the features having the most engagement be in the user’s reach in all cases. The UI should also be accessible for users with visual needs. For better explanation regarding this issue can be seen in the link mentioned:-

Design Brief:- To optimise DMRC’s experience in terms of navigation and accessibility

It was observed that most of the users were able to interpret the correct message behind these graphics even without any help of textual information since the language used was the one that none of the survey participants knew about.

A good mascot can be such a good opportunity to story-tell and communicate with the users in an effective manner. This can be especially most helpful in culturally diverse nations like India with multiple languages. The earlier mascot could’ve been such a good opportunity to aid people to understand various messages found across the DMRC. But the whole earlier character felt so rushed and uncanny especially in the case of installed statues that the mascot was perceived as being unpleasant to look at instead of being inviting to the users who look at it.

In general, it was observed adding the character aided the viewers a lot in the correct interpretation of the whole graphics even without any understanding the languages.

Above was a classic example of Aesthetic-Usability effect, where users often perceive aesthetically pleasing design as design that’s more usable.

Google Maps even though is a service app that was not at all centralised around DMRC performed much better and provided a much better experience to most of the commuters. It was noted that the official DMRC app even had better information for everyday and new commuters to browse through, it still underperformed in terms of user experience especially when the whole UI looked quite bad in terms of aesthetics. Many users who uninstalled the official app also stated the app didn’t look of any use to them even without checking or using it properly.

  1. Make sure the app revolves around features that actually are needed by the user. An improper functioning feature can drastically lower the user experience.
  2. The app should be friendly as per common body and hand positions faced by users in the system as well as according to their needs.
  3. The app should offer information apart from the route, letting users explore and know about the system. For example showing information about station features, food joints, art spots, etc.

The heat map was necessary in this case to plot the area where the features and icons would be placed as per their importance and the state of motion the user would be in while interacting with them. In order to visualise, It was decided to plot icons on a prioritisation scale as follows :-

Here the y-axis coordinated the user’s state of motion while interacting with that particular feature of the app and its icon.

While the x-axis coordinated how often the user will engage with that feature in their day-to-day life.

Therefore, a button with a positive y-axis value means that it should lie in the heat map similar to that of side-grip position, a middle value coordinates that button should lie similarly in heat map region depicted by corner support position and higher negative value of on y-axis means that button is usually by using both of the hands.

These are the icons that would always be in the commuter’s hand range in both one-handed positions and will also comprise most of the user’s experience. However other features like news/alerts will also be in the user’s vision and should occupy a noticeable part of the screen without compromising the space for the above-mentioned features.

The upcoming section is about the application and goes through its highlight features. I would suggest you check out the link mentioned where you can interact with the prototype as well.

Looking back to the ‘Competitive Study’ and ‘User Research’ sections it was noticed that there was a need for offline usage. Following are the offline pages as well. Knowing the fact that most of delhi commuters do not have access to all time network or worse may run out of their data packs in their journey.

DMRC is equipped with open WiFi at most of their station but usually have a lower range or bad speed to them. Apart from that many users cannot even rely upon network data at all times especially if they’re traveling through underground metro lines ( yellow, violet, etc ).

Here comes the Testing phase of the Project where I review my solution work and even get opinions from experts and professors in Interaction Design that I know of. ( For privacy concerns I’m not allowed to share information of those experts but are from institutions like IIT Delhi, DTU, IIT Roorkee and IIIT Jabalpur )

The first phase of testing was just me trying to let the experts of sample size 9 people rate both the old app and the new application. ( I wanted to observe people while they were interacting with my prototype but I wasn’t able to do it so due to covid restrictions ) The results are as follows:-

One of the main point I got from two of the experts was about them saying no matter how efficient or good any service or design system is, a new user will have a high probability to still get confused thus it was advised that app should also offer onboarding screens ( for new users ) and a button in information desk screen that leads to how the DMRC works and what one should do and check-in at what stage of the process. Yes, this feature would almost be of no use after the new commuter uses the Delhi metro for 2–3 times but can help many of new users to at least get an introduction to it.

For the rest, everyone liked the app for its functionality part and praised the UI was easy to read and understand.

Future Prospects

As discussed in the initial part of this project, design solutions might not be that helpful over the course of time. A system needs to change its design and look after the problems within the system from time to time. Similarly, the app solution as discussed above might need some iteration in the future as well and with it, I do propose some new goals in the DMRC as well.

  1. Gamifying the app 🎮 : The main goal behind this addition to them would be to make commuters use the metro ( a public transport ) more often; this would work on the basis of users exploring certain locations throughout Delhi ranging from famous tourist locations, heritage sites, and art culture inside the DMRC and collect cash points on their saved cards in return. The DMRC has a vast range of beautiful murals and street art on many of its stations. The main goal behind this feature is to promote usage of public transport, increase tourism for Delhi and let the street art culture grow in the capital.
  2. Using new and better location facilities 📡 : With the completion of proposed phase 4, the DMRC will see an even larger map, and most importantly updated version of older lines like red, yellow, etc will be extended to a large scale. It is proposed new metro coaches will run on these updated lines and will have accurate location facilities similar to ones found in pink and magenta lines. The app can actually let users find it even more exclusive and satisfactory by letting users be able to share their location link to their friends which can later get notified about the platform they’re arriving on as well as the coach number they’re in as well. This feature actually, for now, doesn’t hold much use and in fact, it doesn't hold much functionality or use to the major crowd for now as well but seeing how many of the young commuters also use DMRC as a place to meet and then decide where they should go to, I can see the increment of this type of need in the future years as well thus can benefit a lot of young commuters as well as an older version of commuters that we’re seeing at the present.

2nd year Industrial and Interaction Design undergrad. Human-centered design solutions > User-centered design solutions