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VIA Rail Journey

We proposed a web experience that invites tourists to consider VIA Rail as a desirable and cost effective alternative to other forms of tourism transportation.

Joshua Fan, Michelle Ng, Sarah Tong, Grant Zou   |   4 week product proposal

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Our website redesign invites tourists to consider VIA Rail as a desirable and cost effective alternative to other forms of tourism transportation. Through our solution, we better connect potential customers with VIA Rail’s excellent customer service and unique ability to explore Canada.

 

Roles

As the team’s project manager and UX designer, I was responsible for organizing the group’s project timeline effectively, as well as ensuring the quality and accuracy of our argument and final product. The construction of the project was heavily based on a clear business case, a thorough brand study and a reasonable application of models. I also played integral roles in the initial concept and execution of the project.

 

 

Overview

Background

VIA Rail Canada is a government-subsidized, independent rail service, providing commuting services as well as vacation packages connecting 400 communities across the nation. VIA Rail operates Canada’s only coast-to-coast passenger rail service, accommodating 3.97 million passengers in 2016.

 

Business problem

Despite the Canadian transportation tourism industry’s recent success in rail and air travel, VIA Rail struggles to fill its seats across its vacation rail options. Particularly, its premium rail package, the Canadian, has only a 54% passenger load factor. For long distance travel, tourists within Canada are choosing to spend their money elsewhere, as the Canadian was the least cost-effective and regularly travelled rail package offered by VIA Rail. Thus we indicated the passenger load factor as the high-level need or business objective.

While other Canadian transportation industries are thriving, VIA Rail is only able to fill half its seats on the train.

While other Canadian transportation industries are thriving, VIA Rail is only able to fill half its seats on the train.

 

Our approach

VIA Rail’s current website, its main platform for booking tickets, is ineffective at enticing tourists, and potential travellers are failing to make it onboard to appreciate VIA Rail’s first class, journey-based experience. This disconnect results in VIA Rail being perceived as only a provider of transportation, one that takes more time and money than its industry counterparts.

In 2016, VIA Rail established four strategic orientations alongside its 2025 goals: Personalization, Connectivity, Collaboration, and Sustainability. With connectivity, we saw an opportunity to not only express connections between passengers and their staff, but highlight aspects of the journey of rail travel as well. We interpreted ‘assets’ as VIA Rail’s exclusive access to parts of Canada, and subsequently their views. While the relationship between passengers and employees is well regarded, connections with the aspects of the journey (stops, activities, spaces, cities, places, scenic sites) could be further expanded.

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Our solution

We proposed a digital solution that invites tourists to view Canada with a different perspective, connecting customers with unique places across Canada.  That is, we’ve designed a web experience that guides the user through a journey that reflects the actual train ride, highlighting VIA Rail’s benefits. By crafting a transportation method where the journey is as valuable as the destination, tourists can consider VIA Rail as a valuable alternative when it comes to discovering Canada.

 

 

Process

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Our group felt that tackling the problem should be rooted in a good understanding of the brand and the current business position. We applied three user experience principles to begin to build a framework for the project. Each section ensured we continually considered the project holistically as well as maintained focus in order to ultimately provide value. The roadmap allowed us to clearly see how our rationales and design decisions start from the business problem and end at the proposal.

I performed a brand study for VIA Rail to better understand what the brand is and how a product would reside within it. After determining high-level value pillars, I expanded towards the tangible, intangible and aspirational value of existing products/services that collectively embody the value pillar ‘personal’ (which includes ‘connected’).

Furthermore, I used a Brand Attribute Matrix to determine what we wish to express with our digital tool. That is, we understood that besides brand elements, products themselves can reflect the brand. A list of attributes that support the value pillar ‘connected’ was created to guide the results of the project alongside Vancouver UX Awards criteria.

Business position

We formed a market matrix using competitive and comparative research to illustrate VIA Rail's business position. While VIA Rail competes with many others in this space, consumer perception places VIA Rail against short-haul, decreased living space services such as airlines. This misalignment is a serious problem for VIA Rail, as it's understandable that consumers wouldn’t want to pay the extra premium compared to airlines.

 

Scoping

Using the Ansoff Growth Matrix, we identified that instead of investing taxpayer dollars into developing new products or markets, VIA Rail can utilize its existing assets to diversify and reach a broader audience.

 

Strategy

In light of the business problem, we naturally decided to focus on first-time customers in order to best entice a new, potential group of travellers. The digital solution suited the needs of the business, and did not exclude occasional or frequent passengers in the process.

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Based on anecdotal reviews from interviews and the VIA Rail Blog of numerous rider’s experiences, we developed the persona: the open-minded adventurer who seeks to maximize her travel experience. By doing so, we were able to derive their behaviours, needs, pains and goal to correctly align our solution.

Particularly, the idea of “the journey is as valuable as the destination” helped us represent a person who appreciated longer travel options that offer multiple opportunities along the way to interact with the places and people around them. This distinction was made apparent during one of our user tests, as the participant preferred to just know the objective aspects of planning a journey. That is, their ideal travel experience was quick and direct: straight to the destination.

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We found the most appropriate medium for our solution was on web, as ride tickets are still overwhelmingly purchased through the website. Upon examination, we realized the website presented key pain points that disengaged the user from the overall experience. Despite VIA Rail's efforts to provide an entire package including room and board, dining, and a superb tourist travel experience at a competitive price, consumers were choosing other options.

Consumers weren’t realizing VIA Rail’s value proposition due to the website’s dense and difficult to digest information, causing a cognitive overhead. VIA Rail is subsequently misinterpreted as merely a pricier and slower provider of transportation. We also identified that dispersal of detailed and useful information within downloadable PDFS as well as the poor distinction between tourism and commuter rails as contributing towards pain points. Overall, the necessary information for tourism journeys were not provided in a clear path.

We identified pain points along a journey framework using Engine Digital’s 5E’s to simply to process. We found the most integral pain points and our most impactful focal point was the Entice stage.

We looked closer into the Entice stage by creating a focused framework. I utilized Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a framework for how information would be organized progressively through the Entice stage. We recognized that when basic needs like safety are met, people are more motivated to achieve higher level goals. In a card sort, I collected all the current website’s assets and organized them based on which level of need they helped promote. This process also allowed me to identify information that fulfilled no needs at all. Completing this process, we began to see the beginnings of how a consumer might encounter and realize each level of need a particular train package could fulfill.

While the five levels of needs aren’t strictly mapped to the stages of the journey framework, we hoped to create a user flow that increasingly promoted higher level needs by addressing the basic necessities first. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pushed us to bring the relevant information to the forefront of the digital experience.

 

 

Other design decisions

How are we going to represent how valuable the journey is? During our design sprint, we discovered an opportunity to entice consumers by showing them what it would be like to, for example, journey across Canada with VIA Rail. By doing so, we present a more authentic image of the value proposition.

To achieve this, the metaphor of the train window was used to transform moments within the website. We used full bleed imagery to reflect how looking through a window would be like while on-board. It also led to the large media panels for consecutive sections within the website.

The interaction of scrolling also helped us represent the idea of ‘taking the journey’ on web. The consistent interaction allowed for us to build a guided tour of what a given journey could be like. Together with a digestible amount of useful information at each step, an accurate overview of the journey was created to help better reflect what consumers might be buying.

 

 

Sketches to Mock-ups

1.Sketching

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2. Art Museum

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3. Rapid, initial prototype

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Product overview

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Consumers enter our solution through the navigation on VIA Rail’s main website. Then, an optional video of the onboard experience would lead to an overview of the 6 routes VIA Rail offers, presenting an immediate value proposition. The video offers a first glimpse of VIA Rail's experience to entice the customer to continue forward.

We give an option to skip video at the beginning, considering that the revisiting users may want to land straight on the website. We present the 6 routes offers by listing them within the side navigation, so users can clearly pick their options. Once they choose their routes, user can look into details by clicking the explore button.

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Moving into a specific route from the homepage, consumers are presented with specific scenes from that journey. Each scene is revealed through the customer’s every scroll, breaking down the physical journey into an accessible, digital tour.

The route line went through a lot of iterations. We decided on the current version as a medium between geographic accuracy and unexpectedness

Combined with animations our solution creates layers of information, reducing cognitive overhead by affording customers the ability to understand the journey at their own pace.

The intended effect this has on VIA Rail’s perceived value is that the presented landscapes and cities become a tangible value; a promise of what customers will receive, with stories and images to reinforce that journey is the key value of the trip.

For each stop along the journey, consumers may notice a subtle pull-out indicator on the right side of the page. Selecting this triggers a playful animation, sliding out a curated series of Instagram photos posted at that stop.

These posts provide credibility to VIA Rail; showing that other passengers have enjoyed VIA Rail’s journey-based experience. Using geo-hashtags to chunk this content further reduces cognitive effort while highlighting the intangible value promised: to show potential passengers what they might do on this journey.

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Scrolling down, the site front-loads our three class options. Hovering over each reveals an immediate tangible value, and clicking explore triggers more information to fill the frame, consistent with the thematic use of the long scroll. The large screens allowed us to chunk information in to smaller, digestible amounts.

We recognize that we can’t design one set of higher values to appeal to all customers, and we leveraged their price points and distinct classes to better target different types of customers. Instead of trying to appeal to the cost-conscious consumer with the premium offerings, we guide customers down their corresponding classes, tailoring the activities and accommodations that best fulfills their intangible and aspirational needs.

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Finally, after exploring the breadth of information available for the selected route, we wanted to propose the next steps: options for the consumer to book a journey or explore other routes. The intention of this is to provide both a hard and soft commitment; consumers can choose to make the purchasing decision, or continue exploring.

 

 

Reflection

    

 

 

The new website design appeals better to new customers while solving previous pain points of obtaining relevant information about route options with VIA Rail. Our designs hope to intervene with an approach that is applicable to other journey-based travel experiences within the sector as well. In retrospect, we acknowledged feedback on the website’s ability to scale across different screen sizes, particularly mobile. The current prototype represents our ability to create a Minimum Viable Product useful for further feedback and implementation. During our research we also discovered the website’s need to standardize its booking methods across the website, as each manifestation of the booking widget is visually and interactively dissimilar and confusing.

Our proposal aims to provide a better understanding of what is being offered by representing the route options in an authentic and engaging way. The effectiveness of our proposal will show through changes in unique visitors, page views and online bookings. We’re currently reaching out to the marketing department of VIA Rail to discuss together their feedback as well.