Here is a Snuggy-like product that I came across at a local hobby store. See anything odd about it? Thanks to the shoddy production work on the box, the woman appears not to be wearing a comfortable robe, but a piece of military-issue MARPAT digital camouflage.
Incompetence of this caliber is hard to excuse in a competitive market— especially when the product you are trying to sell is clearly a shameless rip-off of another, more popular product.
using marketing strategies to fix a mass transit system
Preliminary Comments on Observing the BART Transit System
Over the 10 years I spent in the Bay Area, I spent many hours using the BART mass transit system. As a result of my own experiences and my observations of others in BART trains and stations, I spent considerable time thinking about the goals of the system, and how rider experiences could be improved to make the system more effective, flexible, and in keeping with principles of usability.
I must admit that the reason I embarked on this article is that I find BART, from top to bottom, a frustrating transit system to use, and it in many ways is the perfect example of a wasted opportunity— so much so that it is really an embarrassment for an area of the country that prides itself on technological leadership and progressive thought. At every turn, the BART system is set up in a way that discourages ridership, and makes it ridiculously hard for passengers to do things that should be very simple. What follows are observations I have made about BART, culled from years of experience riding it, along with some marketing strategies that I think will help mitigate some of the frustrations of using BART.
Implications of BART Design and History
First off, it’s important to get some history. BART was constructed as a system that is unlike most mass transit systems. Unlike intra-city (within a single city) transport system like New York, Tokyo, or Hong Kong, BART is an inter-city (between cities) transport system. This has several implications for ridership: 1) station distribution of the BART system is geographically wide, but with low density; 2) because of the geographical coverage, rides can be quite lengthy; 3) riders are more likely to employ multiple forms of transport in their journeys, and 4) passengers traveling longer distances or going to airports may be carrying baggage. That means that while BART travels further than most other subway systems, it is also likely to be harder to get to a station, a trip is significantly more likely to involve several legs involving different types of transport, and riders will have to wait longer between the arrival of two trains. These facts already pose a psychological barrier to potential ridership, so it is important that if administrators want to encourage BART usage, that central and peripheral annoyances be minimized; after all, any excuse a rider can find not to take BART, they likely will employ.
Observation #1 – Lack of Proper Maps, Signage, and Human Communication
- The BART system lacks an adequate number of maps, and also offers poor information quality on existing maps. At times, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a map; many platforms only contain one, and there is often only one on an entire BART train. In addition, if one is unfamiliar with subway maps, it is difficult time figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Numerous experiences I have had assisting disoriented BART patrons has shown me that the reading of existing BART subway maps requires the development of some intuition that visitors often do not have.
- The confusion of navigating is exacerbated if one not understand the geography of the Bay Area, or if one only has a limited understanding of it (ex. “Dublin is north of Fremont”). Not all trains go to all places, so it is important to understand which ones go where, and where transfers needs to happen.
- Given the general lack of signage, we might expect conductors to give helpful messages over the intercoms about where passengers should transfer and whether the train is currently at a transfer point. In fact, it is often impossible to understand what is being said on the intercom; conductors are inconsistent in their clarity and the speaker quality is generally quite poor.
- Too often, when one is in a train, it is hard to figure out what station the train is at if one is not actively keeping track, or if one does not have a visual sense for what particular stations look like. Often, the only indication is a small sign posted on the wall of the station if you look out the train window long enough to find it. These signs are surprisingly difficult to spot, and are likely be hard to see for those with poor eyesight.
Solutions to Observation #1:
- I propose that in addition to showing a geographical depiction of cities, BART’s map should be shown as a linear continuum to eliminate unnecessary or confusing information. Currently, it is confusing to know where to go when all the signs just say things like ‘Platform 1’ and ‘North-bound train.’ This presupposes the BART rider already has previous understanding of the station layout and geographical sense of the Bay Area. A simple linear map that displays how each location on the BART system is related to each other place would allow a rider to intuitively understand how one could get from point A to point B.
In the above picture (where numbers are used to represent cities), someone at point 7 on the map can easily see how he could get to 23, without having to process geographical information.
- At the various platforms within stations, patrons should have a clear understanding of the direction the train is traveling. This can be done by presenting maps where stations that the train will not be going to are grayed out:
Assuming that lines are not rotated on the same platform from day to day, the floor outside the platform or the train itself can be color-coded to ensure that patrons understand which line they are embarking upon.
- Dynamic information offered within the train should be employed to help passengers understand where they are currently, and where the train will be going next. This is illustrated in the graphic below, where the static yellow light in circle 15 indicates current location, while the flashing orange light in circle 16 indicates the next station the train will stop at:
- Instead of having conductors speak, an automated computer voice should broadcast the arrival at each station (ex. “This is the EMBARCADERO STATION.”). This will ensure consistency and audibility in the announcement.
Observation #2 – Inflexible Payment System and Intermodality Issues
- There are currently countless distinct public transit systems in the Bay Area: BART, CalTrain, MUNI, AC Transit, WestCAT, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and the Oakland Ferry, to name a few. Interestingly, most of these have different payment forms. In the past I have had commutes involving AC Transit, BART, and MUNI in a single day; I have known people who have had even more complex daily routines. Not surprisingly, I have personally dealt with and watched others deal with innumerable transit cards, having to keep constant tabs on whether they have credit on those cards, and having to search around for these cards when the time comes to present them.
- The BART card, which gives a passenger access to the trains, is made of a flimsy piece of magnetic paper. They are easily bent, and will de-magnetize if one happens to place one next to one’s mobile phone. Bent or de-magnetized tickets are rejected by the turnstiles.
- BART attendants aren’t particularly concerned about helping passengers with problem cards (a friend once told an uninterested attendant that her card, which still had $5 on it, wasn’t working. The attendant took it, said that it was “too old” and then told her to buy a new one. Is 1.5 years a long time in BART years?
Solutions to Observation #2
- If a major goal of mass transit is to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce pollution, implementing a universal payment system across different modes of public transit is crucial. A large part of the problem with intermodal transport (i.e. multiple different forms of transport within a single trip) currently is the sense that the trip is not integrated. This creates a sensation of hassle and disconnectedness between different legs of the trip. Simplifying the process of intermodality through a single payment card that works for all systems encourages passengers to view the entire commute or transport process as interconnected and logical, rather than disparate and frustrating. This improvement would likely result in increased system throughput, reduced frustration, and greater levels of pre-payment. Admittedly, there are bureaucratic hurdles to jump, but they are ones worth jumping for the good of the system as a whole and for the goals of that system.
- If institution of a new payment system is possible, I would suggest an RFID system in which funds can deducted simply by flicking a sturdy card (or specially-enabled wristwatch) at a receiver. This would drastically reduce the incidence of lost or damaged cards, and would avoid issues created by finicky ticket machines.
- If it is technologically possible, being able to add funding to the card from a place other than the station, would alleviate the frustration of having to wait in line to add funding to the card, and would encourage patrons to purchase high-value tickets in advance in more convenient settings.
- It is worth noting that mass transit systems in other regions (Hong Kong, for example) is set up such that you can use tickets to purchase goods other than rides on the mass transit, like food at convenient stores. Having additional perks and functionality would render a customer more likely to keep a BART ticket around and in use.
Observation #3 – BART Material Construction Promotes Perception of Poor Sanitary Conditions and Visual Disorder
- In my own informal research, when asked about their opinions of BART, passengers’ comments often begin with a negative description of the visual aesthetic and olfactory experience of the trains. A large component of both complaints can be traced to the material construction of the trains. Namely, it is not advisable for a public transit system that carries about 2.5 million of passengers every week to be equipped with upholstered seats and carpeted floors. These materials retain dirt, sweat, and grime, and are near impossible to keep clean. These materials present an unnecessary maintenance expense, a sanitary concern, and unpleasant visual and olfactory experiences.
- Furthermore, it has become clear from recent events that fabrics such as those in BART trains can be vectors for unwanted pests as bedbugs, which poses a problem not only for BART itself, but for the entire region and beyond.
- In addition, the color pattern of the seats are somewhat dated, and easily show discoloration from dirt.
Solutions to Observation #3:
- Shallow as it may appear to be, initial sensory impressions (affective perception) are one of the strongest drivers of customer attitudes. Visually impressing patrons and preventing unpleasant odors will greatly encourage ridership at the aggregate level, and will create the climate for a more pleasurable BART experience. My advice is to abandon upholstery in favor of hard plastic or vinyl, and remove the carpet from the floor. While this may be an expensive overhaul, the cost savings of maintenance and the appreciation from passengers will ultimately pay off in the long run. It will be much cheaper to maintain, it will smell better after constant use, will not appear as dirty, and the selection of an appropriate color will be visually much more appealing than the current choice dirty teal.
Observation #4 – Suboptimal Seat Arrangement and Inflexibility towards Passenger Heterogeneity
- Current usage patterns on BART suggest that the arrangement of the seats in is awkward, inefficient, and inflexible. Some seats face forwards and others face backwards; some seats are placed perpendicular to the train, while others are parallel; and some seats face other seats, facilitating awkward views of strangers. The odd arrangement suggests some design rationale behind it, but observation suggests that it is an ineffective design.
- From my observations, the BART cars are neither convenient for regular passengers, nor accommodating for special situations. In fact, the heterogeneity of passengers needs on any given train upsets the order in such a way as to inconvenience all the passengers on the train. For example, a bicyclist’s awkward but logistically necessary position of standing in front of doorways with his bicycle jutting into the passageway is uncomfortable for both the bicyclist and disembarking passengers. A passenger returning from SFO airport is forced to place his/her baggage on seats or in aisles, making the patron feel self-conscious on crowded trains.
- While BART does allow passengers to bring bikes, it is prohibited at the times that one would most likely want to bring a bike on— during normal commuting hours. BART has been adding bicycle parking units outside some BART stations, where patrons can store bikes at the station in a special holding container for a nominal fee. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem of those who need bikes on both ends of their daily commute.
Solutions to Observation #4:
- I suggest the rearrangement of seats to maximize seating capacity in most cars, but to set aside [a] special car[s] with different seating arrangements that better accommodates people with packages, baggage, and bicycles. This will account for the heterogeneity in passenger needs, and optimize the customer experience for all by creating designated areas for those whose needs are similar. Obviously, statistics on usage patterns involving means and standard deviations of customer types will need to be collected, but implementing a change based on these statistics will create a better customer experience once optimized for heterogeneity.
- The restriction of bikes during commuting hours is symptomatic of the poor design of BART cars. Because BART was designed to be an inter-city rather than intra-city transport method, stations are not geographically scattered around cities. Because of this, and given the rapid increase in bicycle popularity, BART should encourage patrons wishing to integrate bicycles into their commutes; doing so would encourage BART ridership for commutes, and discourage automobile usage. By designing and setting aside special cars for bicyclists, BART can better serve a segment that is currently not being served very well—a segment, it is worth noting, that is growing.
Observation #5 – Confusing Station Layout and Orientation
- BART stations’ post-modern aesthetic unfortunately thwarts usability and intuitiveness. Some BART stations are designed such that they seem to actively thwart passengers from catching trains. For example, in the 12th street / Oakland City Center station, for a passenger to switch trains, he must climb up one set of stairs to another level, and then climb down a different set of stairs to access the second BART platform. This is despite the fact that the first set of stairs actually passes by the other level; for some reason, access to that floor from the first set of stairs is blocked.
- In certain stations, the passenger standing areas are placed against the outer walls (Design A in the diagram below) rather than in the center between the two opposite train tracks (Design B). This means that if one selects the wrong platform upon entry—which is not unlikely given the poor signage— he/she will have to run back up the flight of stairs and run down another flight of stairs to get to the other platform; in Design B, passengers can access access either train from the contiguous standing area.
Solutions to Observation #5:
- Architectural issues like this are difficult to correct without incurring great expense and inconvenience to passengers. Ideally, investing time and money into creating optimal designs would have been implemented in the initial stages of creating the system; though the time has passed to employ this strategy for existing stations, it should be used for the construction of new stations.
- However, given that the time has passed for optimizing the architectural design, the next best solution is to creating signage that allows patrons entering the platform area to select the correct platform.
The observations and proposals I describe are methods that specifically attempt to create a more positive experience for riders on BART, which will not only create a more committed and loyal customer-base, but will contribute to other social goals within the Bay Area, such as reducing vehicular traffic, congestion, and air and noise pollution.
BART’s slogan is “BART… and you’re there!”, a phrase that sounds great on paper. Yet, anyone who’s ever ridden BART knows well that BART is anything but that simple. With its few stations positioned in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as places like Fruitvale and Bay Point, you can make a decent argument that BART’s geographical reaches are significant; still, what it means in that slogan to ‘be there’ is clearly up to debate. Sure, you can get from the town of Orinda to the city San Francisco relatively easily if you happen to already be at the originating BART station, but it’s rarely convenient to get either to your originating BART station or from the destination BART station to wherever it is that you’re trying to go. This often means that a range of transport is necessitated for a given trip. You might need to drive or walk to a BART station, take the BART, and hop on a bus to your final destination. Or you might need to get on CalTrain, catch the BART, and hail a taxi for the last leg of the trip. “BART… and you’re there!” is a phrase that not only rings untrue and hollow for the bulk of passengers, but serves mostly as a reminder for how long and tedious it is to get anywhere using BART and Bay Area mass transit in general (which probably explains in large part the ridiculous amount of traffic to be found on any given stretch of highway in the Bay Area during any given time, particularly around commute times). Better to improve the actual system than to send out hollow reminders of system’s technological prowess.
It probably doesn’t work, so don’t try it. Also, it’s something that Hitler would do.
Before I started B-school many people told me, rather matter-of-factly, that it was going to be 2 years of partying. This, as it turned out, was not at all the case. Of course, my rationale for joining had absolutely nothing to do with this alleged reality; in fact, I do not really consider myself the type of person who thrives in party environments (and the fact that I wrote the previous sentence in that fashion probably attests to that).
Regardless, I understood from the very beginning that networking was going to be a big part— perhaps the biggest part— of the whole experience, and in fact, the foundation on which my future career would lay. This was made clear to me in no uncertain terms by any number of the school faculty, and especially career counselors. I bristled against this thought; what did they mean, networking was the central component of B-school? Was this whole B-school deal really as shallow as outsiders probably think it is? Is it really just a loathsome amalgamation of entitled white dudes who look like the guy below (and act exactly the way you think he does), getting high-powered jobs by kissing ass and joining old boys’ clubs, and then expecting their followers to do the same?
Well, yes and no, as I found out. During the process of the internship search that occurs in the second semester of classes, which for me was unpleasant and protracted (despite my eventual success), I immediately noticed how little having actual business acumen was a component of the screening process.
Sure, recruiters would routinely ask questions that posited certain business scenarios and asked us to respond to them, but like every other interview question they would bombard us with, they were almost uniformly ones in which genuine, candid answers were far less productive for us than giving scripted responses that came directly from the lamest, most pathetic job-hunting play book. Outsiders would be stunned by the level of artifice that was given by students and expected by recruiters in internship interviews.
Since I was 12, I have always known that I wanted to be a brand manager at ABC Industrial Manufacturing Corporation. There’s nothing I like more than hard work. I am an excellent team player, and have sought out leadership roles on cross-functional teams working in competitive industries. In five years, I want to be Managing VP of Finance at ABC Industrial Manufacturing Corporation.
Seriously now, who the hell says that in real life? Who even thinks it? Certainly not me. When people asked me where I saw myself in five years, I often said that I tended not to have such expectations of myself because the things I wanted had a tendency to shift, and what I wanted from the bottom of my heart today could very well not be the same as what I wanted two years from now. I don’t think that is unreasonable in real life, and I highly doubt that you would judge it against your friends if they said that. That said, I can see how it might rub someone the wrong way in an interview setting, given that their only means of evaluating our apparent quality was to take everything we said (no matter how incredibly lame) at complete face value. But the flaw is that they should not be using our words alone to understand us; the quality of a person should be judged by their moral and ethical fiber, their standards, their priorities, the way they treat the people around them, their goals for themselves, and how they see their place in the world around them. These were issues that were never approached in any meaningful way in any interview.
I was even called into career counselor’s office at one point for telling a recruiter that my eventual career goal was to enjoy my job thoroughly and to feel like I was contributing to something that I really cared about. “You are not being paid $100,000 a year to ‘enjoy your job,’” the career counselor told me, exasperated by my conduct. In retrospect, it was, perhaps, too fundamental, too naked, a fact to tell a recruiter. It must have really jarred with the sorts of responses other gave.
Yet, there is little doubt that many of my peers either knowingly or unknowingly felt the way I did, but others didn’t articulate it, or had less compunction about bending the truth as they saw it for a job (I don’t judge them for it, despite the way I phrased that; really, it is an issue of how one places his priorities).
Nevertheless, I felt so awkward to give these bizarre, inhuman responses that I couldn’t bring myself to do it (though eventually, I did have to craft answers that while they did encompass my feelings, also melded them tactfully with standard responses that perhaps deflected their ‘sore-thumb’ quality). As a result, I suffered pretty badly in interview after unsuccessful interview.
The weird thing was that I thought my resume was quite impressive; I felt that my candidness in my successes and failures would give me a humanistic depth that the fakers couldn’t achieve; I thought that being truthful in my answers and not exaggerating my accomplishments would be valued; and most of all, I was under the impression that being dignified and not being blatantly sycophantic towards my recruiters would be held in my favor amidst all the obvious shenanigans going on from my peers. Seriously, how could any self-respecting recruiters not feel utterly and completely embarrassed by the way these overzealous ass-kissers were gushing all over them in a such a labored and frenzied manner?
It just goes to show you: I do not understand the psyches of recruiters, apparently.
It was clear from the first week of interviewing season that the coveted jobs were going to ass-kissers, networkers (who were like ass-kissers but over a longer period), and cute, bubbly girls. These groups, to a very large degree, excluded people in my classes who I had viewed as actually thoughtful or insightful. This in itself was utterly maddening— although not entirely unexpected given that those three groups tended to have another quality that was valuable: boundless, if contrived, enthusiasm; something that was almost definitely less visible in the intellectual group. Nevertheless, how is it that business knowledge and intellectual curiosity be such a negligible part of the process? Should they not have been a crucial component of the interviews?
It soon became clear that ‘company fit’ was one of the little remarked-upon details that could make or break your case in the eyes of recruiters. If they couldn’t envision you as ‘one of the gang,’ or otherwise seeming like ABC Corporation’s sort of guy, you simply weren’t up to snuff. Given this, it’s not surprising that ass-kissers, networkers, and cute, bubbly girls comprised the bulk of the immediate hires. They had proven that they could conform to the standards of corporate America. No one needed to say ‘jump’ for them to say ‘how high.’ It was an implicit dialogue, and they understood it, and could play the game without being told the rules.
I began to believe at one point that I could, theoretically, employ a completely different strategy in school than the one that most of us at least paid lip service to; you know, the one where you do homework, turn in assignments, and try to actually learn something?
Instead of slaving over books; working on tedious, semester-long projects; and crunching numbers, one could instead hold regular parties at his house, inviting the whole school and buying beer for everyone. This could be supplemented with any number of seemingly genuine efforts to win over the respect, admiration, and general positive sentiments of other students; a feat that can be accomplished by being generous to classmates in whatever way one can think of.
It might be an expensive endeavor to do this in the short term. We’re talking about maybe two $50 kegs once a week multiplied by, let’s say 34 weeks a year for 2 years. That’s nearly $7,000 dollars on beer alone.
Regardless, at the end of the program, you’d have 200+ well-wishers whose opinion of you might be good enough that they would be willing to return the favor of all those downed beers by bringing you aboard their companies once all their oily tentacles had expanded into the far reaches of corporate America. And it wouldn’t just be one company that you’d have connections with; it would be dozens.
Now, theoretically you could leverage all these friendships to bounce around from company to company, pulling yourself ever higher up the corporate ladder. And because ‘fit’ is something that is something that is so integral to the hiring process, your company-internal buddies would no doubt pull strings for you to indicate that you were a good guy and should be brought into ABC Manufacturing Corporation. This was my thought after the first year.
Soon afterwards, I realized that this strategy probably would not work. Some— though certainly not all— of these first persons snatched up at the beginning of interviewing season returned to the second year of B-school with their tails between their legs, having embarrassed themselves somewhat on their jobs due to their collective lack of ability. Admittedly, I found some schadenfreude in this, but yet it irked me. Why would corporate hiring practices continue in this way despite what I could only presume was years of backfiring at least in some significant percentage of interns? No answer was forthcoming— short of the standard answer as to why corporate America continues to tread down misguided paths in every aspect of their businesses year after year: inertia.
However, I discovered that those who got jobs jealously sought to keep them, and made concerted efforts to build and preserve their reputations amongst co-workers. They would never do anything that might compromise their image, and would work hard at doing things that would strengthen it. For that reason, and that reason alone, the “party guy” strategy couldn’t possibly work. No one who had spent any time establishing their reputation in the eyes of others, or who was concerned about how others might view them would ever bring a party animal on board their company; it’s simply too risky. If the party employee doesn’t live up to the original employee’s recommendation, it’s the latter’s whose reputation at the company is damaged. And what could a friend possibly have to gain by bringing in party person, anyway?
It would be different with a close and respected friend, but there’s very little to gain by getting “party guy” into the company beyond doing him/her a personal favor. According to game theory, you have much to lose, very little to gain. Why bother?
I guess maybe it’s worth paying attention in class after all.
a pictorial representation to ponder