Q&A: Emma Chapman and Kiki Martins da Silva on designing a one-of-a-kind public transport app for emerging markets
Designing a public transport app for emerging markets means understanding the problems commuters are trying to solve, from getting around dynamic public transport networks to using lower-spec phones. We spoke with Emma Chapman, Lead Product Designer, and Kiki Martins da Silva, Senior Product Designer, about how Rumbo — WhereIsMyTransport’s public transport app — is designed to help people who rely on public transport in emerging markets.
What do you do at WhereIsMyTransport, and what’s your background?
Emma: I’m Lead Product Designer at WhereIsMyTransport, and I oversee our Design function. I have spent 15 years working in startups and scale-ups, including Headspace, Relish, and Orange Innovation Labs. I have honed my skills in user-centred design over my career, ensuring that people remain at the forefront of the product development process — that is really important to me. At WhereIsMyTransport, our team utilises design thinking and product psychology to create user experiences, from product strategy through ideation and development, launching a product that’s functional and practical.
Kiki: I’m a Senior Product Designer for WhereIsMyTransport and I work within our ‘Services Squad’ in Rumbo. In squads, we work on a specific part of the product experience, and our Services Squad works on journey planning, connecting our data, and general app performance. My background is in Psychology and User Experience Design. I am passionate about creating innovative services that prioritise people’s needs and focus on truly solving their problems.
How does designing a public transport app for emerging markets differ to designing one for developed markets?
Emma: Designing a public transport app for emerging markets requires a nuanced approach. We have to take into account the unique challenges people face — they differ significantly from those faced by people in developed markets. In many emerging markets, internet access can be limited or expensive. This means we need to make sure that Rumbo is ‘lightweight’ — it doesn’t require a lot of data. Low-end smartphones are also more common, so we need to optimise Rumbo to run on these devices, including ensuring that the app doesn’t drain too much battery. Public transport itself is more complex and fragmented, which means that we, as designers, need to create a simple and intuitive user interface that can help people navigate these systems easily and in a familiar way.
Kiki: Rumbo is available in Mexico City, Lima, and Bangkok. I am from Sao Paulo in Brazil, but designing for our Rumbo markets requires me to completely step out of my comfort zone and get to know people of different cultures, who speak different languages, and may live in completely different socio-economic conditions. This is very interesting — it’s a part of the process that I really enjoy. That strong understanding of our markets is crucial for designing a successful public transport app that meets the needs of the people who use it.
Emma: Rumbo is a map-based app, and that means it is important to take into account cultural nuances like the meanings behind fonts and colours, and the varying ways in which different cultures read addresses. Another key consideration for us is the presence of multiple languages, dialects, and scripts. These require us to ensure that the app is fully localised to meet the needs of the people who use it.
Kiki: One difference we’ve learned about is how secure commuters feel while travelling. Some people avoid using their smartphones in public any more than necessary. As designers, this means we need to minimise user input and simplify interactions in order to remove any unnecessary steps, making sure that Rumbo allows people to navigate easily and quickly, getting the information they need and getting to their destination as simply as possible.
What is public transport like where you are from?
Emma: I’m lucky to call Edinburgh home. One of the things I love about this city is how compact it is. You can walk almost everywhere, which is perfect for when the weather is nice — which is rare in Scotland! If you’re feeling a bit lazy or if the hills are too steep, the bus and tram system is extensive and will save the day. Buses are relatively cheap, and although they can get busier during peak times, they’re usually very reliable. If you need to travel further, there are two main train stations with connections to the rest of Scotland and the UK. Compared to other cities I’ve lived and travelled in, I have to say that public transport in Edinburgh is very chill.
Kiki: I also live in Edinburgh, but I’m originally from Sao Paulo — the opposite of a compact city! It’s not uncommon for people to spend more than 3 hours on public transport every day. Sao Paulo has an extensive public transport system which covers most of the city, including suburbs and peripheral regions. The subway and trains are reliable, organised, practical, and not too expensive. Buses are decent and frequent. Compared to other cities in Brazil, the transport system in Sao Paulo works great. However, some stations can be dangerous at night. When using public transport in Sao Paulo, it is important to keep your possessions close to you and avoid holding your cellphone in your hand. Overcrowding is also a problem. Subways, trains, and buses can get really full, especially during peak times. And when I say crowded I really mean it. You sometimes need to wait for several trains before you can enter because of how crowded it is — there is literally no room for you.
How do you find out what people need from an app like Rumbo in the first place?
Emma: The design process for Rumbo begins with thorough ethnographic research. Our goal is to localise the app in each market as much as we can. To do this effectively, we need a deep understanding of our target users. We approach this with as few preconceptions and biases as possible, as well as a sense of curiosity and desire to learn as much as we can about the people we are designing for. Creating the best possible user experience requires strong empathy skills.
Our product design methodology blends creative ideas with a rigorous scientific inquiry process. We benchmark against competitors, engage in-market experts, and gather feedback from our users — who we call ‘Rumbis’. Naming our users like this humanises the people we are designing for. That increases empathy across our whole product team, and it also helps create a sense of community, belonging, and shared identity among the people who use Rumbo.
Our design and development process is collaborative, allowing us to test our hypotheses and assumptions and gather evidence to validate them. We work closely with CX — our Customer Experience team — and researchers who organise workshops to collect information and analyse feedback to gain insights into their needs and preferences, both explicit and implicit. Throughout the process, we rely on data to inform our understanding of commuter behaviour, because people’s actions may differ from their words.
Kiki: Product psychology is an important part of the design process. People experience stress when using public transport — we understand that. We’ve created an app that is functional but also empathetic and user-friendly, tailored to address the challenges that arise.
We work carefully, and we understand that design decisions have real-life consequences. Badly designed experiences can result in our Rumbis arriving late for work or missing important events. This is especially true in markets where travel is particularly complex and can lead to decreased cognitive function. Our design must be intuitive and easy to use, even when situations are anxiety inducing.
After we launch new features, we continue with our active monitoring. We have a research library and a feed of user comments on Slack that offer us valuable feedback, and we leverage that to secure an evolving understanding of Rumbi pain points and needs. This allows us to identify areas for improvement and make informed decisions for future updates.
How does feedback from Rumbo users change the product?
Kiki: I am really grateful for the close relationship we have built with our Rumbis. Their willingness to make suggestions and test new features mean they are actively participating in building Rumbo with us. It also helps that we have in-market teams at WhereIsMyTransport. I’d never benefited from this before — I’d always worked with one team of researchers and groups that aimed to be representative of all users. But in reality, things are more nuanced. Even when I’ve worked just in Europe, we’d find problems. One time, we applied British humour and discovered after launch that it didn’t land well for other European and global users. Having in-market teams is a huge advantage as it helps us avoid these mistakes.
Emma: The challenge for us is that we all have our biases, including our in-market teams! We have to be conscious of this. We don’t make assumptions, and we continuously user test. All the insights we gather are incredibly useful, and I greatly appreciate the kindness and willingness to contribute that our users bring to the table.
Kiki: One way Rumbo is shaped by the people who use it is data contributions — that is something that enriches the user experience for everyone. In Latin America, we found that Rumbis are really proud of their data contributions and feel a sense of accomplishment. But in Bangkok, we heard that people like to help in a more modest way. For us as designers, that is something we have to consider. If we were to do something like gamification, it would need an approach that worked for all our markets.
Emma: When we asked people during user testing how they want to be rewarded for data contributions, we found that responses leaned more toward altruism in one market, and recognition in another. In that example, gamification would need to combine characteristics, perhaps telling users how many people they’ve helped, as well as celebrating their contribution. Of course, this is what people tell us they want — that’s not always the same as what they actually want. Gamification taps into a universal human feeling, and I think our Rumbis will be engaged. We are testing to be sure.
It truly feels like people who use Rumbo are our partners in building Rumbo. Their suggestions for improvements and feedback are invaluable and make the process feel collaborative. It gives us the confidence to succeed and fail while continuously learning. You can’t really ask for more as a designer.