I teach design research to graduate students at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. This is like teaching exercise techniques to Olympic athletes — you better offer results.
With that in mind, we designed this year’s class challenge for realists and dreamers: improve the user experience of Elon Musk’s proposed HyperLoop transportation system. Realists could get off on the many obstacles; dreamers could venture into the unknown.
We started by introducing them to the lost promise of Segway. They are too young to remember its launch. To them, it’s a tourist attraction that lets their grandparents feel edgy.
When we explained that Segway was intended to revolutionize personal transportation, we got stares and chuckles. To our students who can read visual imagery like words, Segway’s failure was hard coded in its design. The revelation that its founders sought little to no user feedback only confirmed its fate.
Too often truly innovative technology gets ahead of itself. Its proponents believe so strongly in the magic that users are ignored or underestimated until they can’t be. This is the Segway failure in a nutshell — its inventor and backers assumed people would love it and readily add it to their daily lives. They did not.
The HyperLoop is primed to follow a similar path, wandering perilously close to the cliff of user disinterest. Yes, there are leagues of engineers and other scientists obsessing over its design but very little effort (that we could uncover) is going into understanding how best to entice humans into a windowless tube traveling hundreds of miles an hour over earthquake fault lines.
People pile into airplanes with minimal complaint, but that’s taken decades and two World Wars to develop, plus the physics are different and riders will feel that. For HyperLoop to succeed, it needs to quickly attract a large and continual supply of satisfied riders. To do that, users’ feedback needs to be included in design decisions early and often.
We gave our students 14 weeks (really only about 50 hours per student) to figure out what a positive HyperLoop experience needs to offer. They imagined a typical journey and thought through where it would fail to impress or fall flat for a rider. They asked people to speculate on their reactions to various elements of a HyperLoop ride, and they prototyped potential solutions to those concerns.
Despite being novice researchers with little budget and no experience, they discovered valuable insights and potential solutions. We learned a great deal from them and we respectfully suggest HyperLoop developers could as well.
Interviewing iphone users or Tide purchasers is easy. They know the products, they’ve used them repeatedly, they hold opinions and are happy to share. Interviewing potential riders of a not-yet-existing and completely revolutionary transportation system — not so easy.
Our students had to help potential users imagine riding the HyperLoop, without biasing them one way or the other. They had to help them make relevant comparisons, perhaps to BART or air travel, and then help them project their feelings to the HyperLoop. This is an advanced interviewing technique, yet we were impressed with their discoveries. Here are a few examples:
The HyperLoop Hierarchy of User Needs
As is often true, one of the most interesting insights is also one of the most basic. Potential riders have needs and expectations that can be rank ordered like Maslow’s pyramid.
This discovery, by Team Barbados, shows in brilliant simplicity that riders first and foremost expect safety, followed by value (money), time savings, comfort and finally entertainment. HyperLoop can use this framework to prioritize development of user experience elements and spend proportionately on what’s valued most. You’re welcome.
Another clear-eyed insight came from Team Caymen (all our teams were named for islands because it makes me smile). They noted that users’ baggage storage needs differ by the length and purpose of a trip.
On a short commute — 30 mins or so — a rider is comfortable holding his or her single, usually smallish bag. On a longer trip or one with a recreational purpose, a separate storage compartment is expected.
Since HyperLoop jaunts are short, this suggests they may not need to incorporate storage compartments or if they do, they can be minimal. To attract both commuters and recreational travelers, HyperLoop may need two different types of seating areas.
What is Comfort?
Team Jamaica took on one of the more difficult quests: figuring out what constitutes comfort for a HyperLoop rider.
To a casual thinker, this might be summed up with a comfy chair, but our students explored further. They learned that travel comfort comes in two forms: physical and emotional.
Physical comfort does indeed include comfy chairs, but it is also influenced by lighting, temperature, quiet, air quality and a smooth ride. Emotional comfort is just as important but perhaps harder to design. It can include feeling protected from germs, not bumping into others, some sense of exclusivity or prestige, control of personal space and predictability. Attention to these factors in the HyperLoop could encourage not only repeat customers but also positive recommendations to others.
After interviewing potential users and non-users, our student teams moved on to their next challenge: prototype a solution to any pain points or problems you discovered. Asking designers to prototype something isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most designers have a perfectionist gene or two and crafting something quick and dirty is anathema to their value system. But part of our job is to push them past their comfort zones, so we did — to good effect.
Team Tahiti envisioned a digital ticket that changed its function as the travel progressed. Initially it provides security and boarding information. Enroute it tracks the HyperLoop’s progress and informs of any delays. This informative, dynamic yet constant connection seems to calm people’s nerves and help them feel more safe. I want this now.
Team Tonga zeroed in on a personal frustration with current Bay Area transportation — the need to use several different forms of payment including cash, credit card and Clipper card. They envisioned solving this potential problem for HyperLoop riders with a wearable band linked to an account and used to purchase anything along the route (ticket, upgrades, food, entertainment, etc).
Before you dismiss this as “already solved by ApplePay” remember these are students. Most don’t have credit cards or the ones they have are maxed out — like a high percentage of real people. The band Disney-fies the HyperLoop ride and that’s a good thing.
We love ambitious students, the ones who say “damn the odds, this is too cool.” That describes Team Fiji who envisioned a station layout primed for sponsorship. Their presentation imagined departure gates digitally manned by StarWars characters (or other sponsoring brand images) rather than odd combos of numbers and letters.
Just in case HyperLoop doesn’t break even on ticket sales, it might be nice to have a database of deep-pocketed sponsors happy to supplement the budget. The mind boggles at the possibilities.
For me and my co-instructors, Katy Mogal of Fitbit and Elizabeth Glenewinkel of GravityTank, the semester’s end means less juggling between our real jobs and teaching. For our students, it means a month-long break in the middle of their Design MFA program — a program that supplies much of the Bay Area’s top new design talent. For HyperLoop, we’ll have to wait and see.
Maybe someone on one of the development teams will find this work useful. Maybe they’ll see the value in adding design interns to their team. Maybe they’ll start listening to potential users. I honestly hope so because I want the HyperLoop to exist, and I want to be in those cues to board it. But I won’t do it for the magic — in the end, the user experience always matters. I wouldn’t own a Segway if it was free.