Design Research: The L-Train Shutdown

Atharva Patil
7 min readJan 7, 2019


By Atharva, Amy & Xiran

Final design proposals on train stops.


In fall 2018 took a class on the Design thinking and research methodologies. We discussed different methodologies such as lego serious play, 5 whys? & googles design sprint. As part of the 7 week class we learned different research techniques & simultaneously worked on our capstone project for the class.

The choice of topic for class for the L-train shutdown to repair the damaged Canarsie tunnel connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn in New York. The L-Train helps over 400,000 travellers cross the east river to get to work on the other side of the river. With a 15 month construction planned, we as a class wanted to look into how it will

  • Potentially affect commuters jobs, local businessmen, local artists, MTA employees.
  • What steps the city could take in order to communicate the shutdown communication & work progress.
  • What communities could do actively in order to avoid any problems or look for alternative solutions.


A large portion of the class was new to the city. So As part of one of our exercises we documented our train rides from school to work & visa-versa. We also took rides on the L-train to see of there was any information which was already put up.

A longer documentation on my observations & suggestions for improvements.


With observations from everyone in class we put all of our ideas together. With help of our instructors Heidi and Dave we grouped similar ideas together. The idea was to group ideas so that we could work as groups. Focus our research in one direction and build prototypes for testing and reiteration.

We wrote our ideas as How might we?/ What if? statements limiting ourselves to a single statement or a graphic communicating our ideas. After grouping them 3 major groups came out.

  • Passive Reaction: How the city can harness existing infrastructure to help commuters.
  • Active Reaction: How people can take action to help the community and commuters.
  • Action: Looking for alternative travel solutions from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

The ideas in Passive reaction group excited me so I put it down as a preference and got to work on it.


I worked with Xiran and Amy on this, we decided to work of all of our previous findings as a group and build a shared moodboard together in order to streamline our objective.

We started by creating some bullshit personas based on some real people.

Based on our own experiences as students who had moved to the city recently.

For our ethnographic research we decided to interview people on L train platforms waiting for trains and nearby businesses which could be affected by the shutdown. We created a questionnaire which was divided in-to different steps. The objective was to begin with general questions to build familiarity & then deep dive into the questions we wanted to ask to understand peoples reactions. Our questionnaire looked like this.

  1. Intro: Hi so what’s your name?
  2. Intro: Hey is it okay if we record our conversation for academic purposes? We won’t be sharing it with anyone.
  3. Intro: Are you from New York? How long have you been here?
  4. Level 1: How do you travel around the city usually? Do you take the train, bus, ferry or any other form?
  5. Level 1: Which do you usually travel to?
  6. Level 1: Are you aware of the improvements MTA is doing to improve the subway system?
  7. Level 1.5: How do you know if there are any disruptions in your route? Like a schedule change or a rerouting?
  8. Level 1.5: Are you aware of your alternate travel options?
  9. Level 2: Have you heard of the L train closure starting January 2019?
  10. Level 2: How did you hear about it?
  11. Level 2: Do you remember the what was the message you received about the L-Train closure?
  12. Level 2: Do you take the L train anytime or your any of your friends take the L-train?
  13. Level 3: Does the L-train closure affect you on a personal level?
  14. Level 3: Going forward, what would you like to know about the L-train closure?
  15. Level 3: Any particular way you would like to receive this information?
  16. Level 3: Any other thing to add?

Some observations from interviews:

  • A lot of the commuters didn’t know about the upcoming L-train shutdown & thought the posters outside the station were simply for some construction work and possible delays.
  • The ones who knew about if thought the shutdown was only on weekends as it if the case with other train routes in the city. Some commuters had a better idea and were possibly looking at relocation.
  • The people who were business owners were aware of the shutdown in detail and were taking steps in order to save their businesses by coordinating with other local businesses.

The thing we basically realised even with the best efforts to communicate the 15 month shutdown people were unaware of it. So we decided to approach our problem as a communication mismatch.

So, we came up with a objective to solve,

How Might We, inform people who will be potentially affected by the L train closure about it?


The three of us came up with some ideas on how people could be communicated about the shutdown better. We came up with a few ideas.

  1. Message with App updates.
  2. Youtube, Spotify Ads about shutdown.
  3. Postcards sent in train stations with info & website.
  4. Tweet L train shutdown from celebrities
  5. Brochure, community power, data visualization.
  6. Phone alerts.
  7. In transportation app designs
  8. Signage on digital posts(Subway and Link NYC).

We decided not to prototype ideas which would require the city to partner with private corporations as some of our prototypes may not even see the light of the day such as app updates on google maps or Youtube and Spotify ads.

We picked up the existing artefact of posters which currently inhabit the train stations and focus on the communication. How to grabs commuters attention in a cornucopia of information and relay the relevant information.

We designed a few variations of the posters:

Poster designs with different texts and styles for user testing.



  • Clear information architecture was easy to scan.
  • Clear icons help identify information.
  • Url’s specific to the poster was a good addition


  • At subway stations information gets lost in the mix. Want to see only necessary information.
  • If there is a closure notice there should also be an alternate route information.
  • Explicitly mentioning Manhattan and Brooklyn if someone is not familiar with the station names.
  • Map is a crucial information artifact which helps in consuming information.

Re-Designing based on feedback:

We needed to work on 2 things.

The Messaging:

  • People want a direct message which is apologetic in nature.

In addition they want to know about:

- The exact closure dates

- Possible alternate routes

- The list of stations which will be closed.

The Map:

People would like to see a clear visualization of the closure.

& we made changes to the map assets & tested them out again.


Final poster designs
Posters as imagined at the subway stops and printed posters & digital signs.



  • We have walked through a full journey of user research and learned some useful. methods to do research (HMW questions, In-person Interviews, Crazy Eights, etc.)
  • We can get tremendous value from talking to real people at every stage of a project.

Future plan:

  • We actually want to try to put up our poster in some of the L train stations to see how people will react to them.
  • Do A/B testing — whether we should put the map with alternatives into a pamphlet.