York/Sheridan design students thaw the ice on public transit

Amy Mamtura, Cristina Matei and Esther Hung, fourth-year students in the York University/Sheridan Institute Joint Program in Design, are applying their communication design training to devise real-world solutions in the public sphere.

Their “Springboard” smart phone application design was selected as one of 12 finalists for the thinkTORONTO urban design ideas competition. Hosted by Toronto’s Spacing Magazine, the juried competition received more than 100 entries from across Canada.

All the finalist entries were published in Spacing’s December 2008 issue. For a closer view, the designs are also on display at 401 Richmond’s Urban Space Gallery until today, following a successful exhibit at the Toronto City Hall Rotunda Jan. 12 to 18.

Springboard was designed to enhance social interaction within the confines of TTC commuters’ transit space. Drawing on the experience of their daily commutes to York’s Keele campus, the designers wanted to find a way for people to use their transit time to engage with other commuters.

Right: The Springboard concept

The project had its genesis in a class assignment. Design Professor David Gelb had asked his third-year information architecture students to design something related to public space. Mamtura and Matei looked to Spacing magazine as inspiration, came up with the Springboard concept and brainstormed it from various viewpoints. Joined by Hung in the following semester, they fleshed out their concept in their design & systems course, which translates ideas into action, including testing with focus groups. That’s when Matei came across the call for submissions for the thinkTORONTO competition.

“We feel the project has really come full circle,” Matei said. “We’d been working on it for almost a year when we submitted it to Spacing for consideration. We’re thrilled to be selected as finalists.”

The project began with curiosity and questioning: “Why do Torontonians have a blasé attitude toward strangers? Is it simply a social construct – a relic left over from the days of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ – or is it the transit environment itself which discourages contact, thus promoting an atmosphere of isolation?”

Mamtura contrasted the TTC experience with public transit around the world, especially in Mumbai, India, where she has family who helped her in her research. “In Mumbai the subway is so crowded,” she said. “Of course all passengers want a seat, and when people board the train they will try to negotiate seating by asking those already sitting at what stop they’ll get off. Hawkers also walk up and down the trains selling their wares. That transit system is full of interaction, unlike Toronto’s where we even avoid eye contact.”

But how to go about breaking the ice? The trio’s solution was mobile technology. Springboard acts as a conduit for socialization, beginning on screen and leading to the potential for meeting up in a designated transit car. Spacing describes it as a “social lubricant”.  

Springboard users have a profile. As a team, the designers decided on the sort of information people would be willing to share.

“Privacy is very important,” said Hung. “But in order to find people with whom you have things in common, you have to share. We decided profiles need a picture, but it doesn’t have to be your face. And there is space to put your occupation and several interests.”

Left: Amy Mamtura (left) and Cristina Matei (right) were honoured at Spacing’s thinkTORONTO event by Toronto Mayor David Miller

When a Springboard user starts their commute and logs on, the application asks for a destination. Then the user can see everyone else in the vicinity who is also logged on, sorted in order of commonality. Each person has a countdown showing when they leave the train.

Sadly, the application isn’t yet available in the iTunes store.

“Seeing as the TTC subway doesn’t yet have wireless Internet, even if we did find a software developer to help bring our plans into reality, it couldn’t work underground,” said Hung.

“And once there is Wi-Fi available, people may become more isolated with personal online entertainment,” said Matei. “What we’d really love is to own the space and create a Springboard monopoly!”

Now in their final year of studies, all three students are exploring design for technology.

Right: Esther Hung in full Springboard mode

“Sometimes technology is very rigid and it can be frustrating for users,” said Mamtura. “Design can build a bridge between the product and the user by helping intuit how people are going to want to use the technology, and creating a more human interface.”

“With the proliferation of smart phones and smaller and smaller computer screens, design’s role in that industry is getting more and more important,” added Hung. “Less information can be displayed at one time. Design can be the key to determining priorities and keeping it all readable.”

The trio will be involved in a View Points panel discussion with two other thinkTORONTO winners at Harbourfront Centre on March 26. Organized and moderated by the Spacing team, the event aims to foster a dialogue among Torontonians about ways to improve the public realm and generate creative and sustainable solutions in our shared common spaces.