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Six Principles for Developing Transit Web Sites
These six principles are offered to transit managers as a framework for development of their agencies' web sites. They highlight overall goals and issues that are relevant to web sites in various stages of development and with varying levels of sophistication.
1 Focus on ease of use and service information
Schedules, maps and fare information receive by far the most usage on transit web sites today. Trip planners are also very popular when they are provided, and are often requested by customers when they are not provided.Other important service information concerns construction diversions, special events and unplanned incidents. The popularity of service information reflects the fact that most visitors are looking for information to help them plan their trips.
Internet users are impatient and expect to find service-related information quickly and easily. Thus, ease of use and navigability are just as important as content in creating an effective web site. Web site managers and developers must be focused on providing effective navigation aids, understandable terminology in links, an intuitive structure of information on the site, manageable file sizes, printable pages and should avoid exclusive use of PDF files. See Thirty-four Good Practices for specific design practices and links to examples.
2 Provide for the varying needs of different audience segments
Many agencies think about the web site audience as an undifferentiated group--"riders." Yet there are in fact different audiences with different needs. Sites must be designed with these difference audiences in mind:
Trip planning information illustrates the different needs of these different audiences. A simple listing of links to each bus or rail route, ordered by route number or name, serves the need of regular riders in quickly going to the particular schedule or route map they want. This listing may have little meaning to non-riders or visitors, however. They need to know what transit services can serve their trip. Maps and lists showing key destinations and adjacent transit lines can help them plan a trip. Trip itinerary planners are also very helpful.
3 Count the audiences
Designing for different audience segments requires knowing who they are and how well the site reaches each segment. Market research can provide valuable information on the size of the current and potential audiences for web sites and directions for further site development.
Many transit agencies or metropolitan planning organizations periodically conduct surveys of customer satisfaction and travel behavior. These surveys can include questions that measure how many people are interested in visiting the site, how many have actually visited, how often they visit, the reasons for visiting and satisfaction with the site.
4 Test the site with users
Can Internet users find the information they want on your web site? What puzzles, annoys or frustrates them? How does the web site affect how easily or how often they use your agency's bus or rail services?
The best way to answer these questions is to watch users as they perform tasks on the site such as planning a trip. Usability testing shows how easily the site can be navigated, whether users can find desired information and what changes need to be made in site content, structure and navigation tools.
This does not have to be an extensive or expensive effort. Much insight can be gained from testing with just a few people and a few basic tasks. This research makes site development easier because it gives developers very concrete and vivid feedback to focus their efforts.
Usability testing will become more important as transit agencies move into the challenging areas of e-commerce and customization of information for individual customers.
5 Promote the site
Inform your potential audiences about the good information found on your site:
6 Integrate the Web with Business Processes
In the initial development of transit web sites, there tends to be little integration between the Internet effort and other business processes. Instead, web site managers and technical staff deal with the web as an add-on to established routines. Bus and rail schedules must be converted to PDF or html formats after being produced for the print versions. On the technical side, the Information Technology department hosts the site separately from the agency intranet and other information systems and applications.
As agency web sites become more extensive and ambitious, this sort of after-market approach to handling information for the web site becomes very inefficient and burdensome. It becomes clear that the web site must be fully integrated with business processes involving production of schedules, trip planning software development, handling of real-time service information, and the flow of employment information, procurement information, sales of fare media, etc. Systems integration and automation are critical to delivering timely, accurate information on the Internet. Intranets can help in uploading information directly from the departments that generate the information.
What is the benefit of polishing transit agency web sites? Is there substantial payoff to refining the structure and navigation of the site and maximizing use and usability? If the information on the site is valuable to users, won't they persist through whatever difficulties they encounter?
These questions presuppose that the audience for transit web sites, like the traditional transit rider, consists of people who lack alternatives. The assumption underlying this type of question is that people who take the bus or train do so because they have no other way to get around town. Fortunately or not, the transit-dependent population is dwindling in size, and in fact is not entirely transit-dependent anyway. As a base for transit ridership or as the main audience for transit web sites, relying on people's lack of alternatives is not a promising strategy.
On the other hand, transit agencies across the country--and in the past few years the transit industry in the U.S. as a whole--have experienced ridership growth. This growth has come not among the transit-dependent population but among people who have alternative means of transportation but have decided to choose transit.
These new riders are looking for the fastest way to travel to their destinations and an acceptable experience along the way. When they go to the Internet they want the same type of experience--the information they need, quickly and in a form that is usable to them. Meeting their needs will make them more likely to use transit. Transit agencies thus have the opportunity to demonstrate speed and ease of use on-line -- the same qualities they strive to provide on-board.