The Importance of Design-Thinking in Digitization: A Tracker Story

Over the past few years the annual performance report for MassDOT and the MBTA—Tracker—has been produced for print. Typically between 50 to 80 pages and distilled into summary presentations, posters, or abridged documents, Tracker has been limited by the two dimensions of the page. As such, it has been a creative challenge to distill complex sets of data into static charts without losing compelling and sometimes necessary context around core performance metrics.

To address this challenge, OPMI decided it was time to go digital with Tracker—bringing performance reporting into the 21st century in parallel with the agency’s journey to digitize train dispatching.

Finding a Platform

To begin transitioning Tracker to a digital space, OPMI came together as a team and brainstormed all of the features (or elements of the User Interface (UI) or User Experience (UX)) that we envisioned a performance report should deliver. In a sense, this was our way of gathering business requirements—a common practice in the undertaking of any technology-based project.

The biggest change from paper to screen that we wanted to explore was the inclusion of different filters for charts and interactive maps—all while including a narrative that would guide the user through the series of metrics in a thoughtful and neutral way.

We first explored Esri’s Story Maps for this, using maps and images as the core content leading the user through the site. However, we quickly exceeded the capabilities of Story Maps as the report grew to accommodate each Division’s data. After two months of building the report in Story Maps, we started over.

What we had built in two months in Story Maps, we achieved in Squarespace—a templated content management system common for out-of-the-box website design—in two days. We were able to “fail fast” and move on to a more effective solution. We weighed our options as we explored different platforms, and decided after two weeks of research and testing, that for its pilot year Tracker would live on a Squarespace website.

This Is Not a Dashboard

Moving to a more interactive format, posed the question: what makes this different than a dashboard? Should this be different than a dashboard? The answer to the latter, we concluded, was yes. Due to the legislative requirements to report annually, it was important to the OPMI team to create a robust narrative structure around the data and metrics we presented in order to support the notion of this as truly a retrospective snapshot of performance each year.

A dashboard in comparison would leave much of the interpretation of the metrics to the audience, allowing greater autonomy in exploration of the information. However, this format would lack greater clarity, explanation, and qualitative information that isn’t captured by or displayed through the data itself. A dashboard is also supported by data feeds which update continuously; due to new systems coming online and old systems cycled out, a dashboard view of performance metrics does not allow us to look back over time in the same way that annual snapshots or traditional reports do.

Designing for Digital

Due to piloting a new platform for Tracker, our focus was primarily on how to support the report, rather than redesigning the report to fit a digital platform. Next year, we will revisit this aspect, and redesign the online report with user experience at the forefront of the report’s generation.

Focusing on the user experience will allow us to reduce the number of clicks and amount of scrolling, identify opportunities for more engaging and meaningful content, and allow more fluid cross-linking to other resources and reports relevant to the agency’s performance.