Design Thinking: Amtrak Smart Seat

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Over the course of 3 months, I worked as part of a 5-person team in my New Product Development class to develop a solution to improve the experience of Amtrak train commuting. Our process closely followed design thinking principles, and I personally worked on conducting ethnographic interviews and prototype sketching.


Customer Discovery:

We interviewed a variety of Amtrak commuters about their experiences, focusing on pain points and unmet needs. This involved in-person trips to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to interview riders in the waiting area, reaching out to internet strangers on the r/Amtrak subreddit to call, and emailing bloggers to meet with us. We also held a call with Amtrak's VP of Customer Experience to get an understanding of their customer experience and see what initiatives they were planning behind the scenes.

For the riders, the most important factors in their purchasing decisions were reliability and comfort. We found that most struggled to find out the status of their trip (e.g. delayed, on time, early, other notices), which caused them stress and confusion.

 For Amtrak, they recognized the need for reliability but acknowledged they were not doing enough currently to address it. We saw an opportunity here for us to step in and work on an innovative solution.

Reaching out to Redditors on the Amtrak subreddit.

(Above: Reaching out to Redditors from the Amtrak subreddit)


Prototyping & Iteration:

At first, we decided to go with a redesign of the current Amtrak app to incorporate ticket QR code scanning and real-time delay trip status notifications, but eventually pivoted away from this idea. We realized that very few would download and actively use the Amtrak app due to the following reasons: traveling short distances, being an infrequent traveler, or not being tech-savvy.

As a result, we turned to physical solutions. We came up with a folding seat with an armrest scanner that was folded up until a rider "checked in" at the seat by scanning their ticket. The concept also included an itinerary screen on the side of the seat.

We pivoted away from this too, especially because we foresaw it to be confusing for the elderly, the screen placement was awkward, and some riders like to use the seat next to them to place bags or other belongings if it is occupied. It was too drastic a change from how Amtrak seats currently look and operate.

Our next iteration brought us to what would become our final concept: a smart system centered around a seat with feedback-driven interactions between the rider, train car, and conductor. Below are its components:

  • Armrest ticket scanner - On the armrest (facing up). Meant to be able to scan paper and digital ticket QR codes. Once you check into the seat, it turns off the occupancy light indicator and activates the itinerary screen.
  • Occupancy light indicator - At the top corner of each seat to indicate if a seat is occupied or not. Green means vacant, and off means occupied (it changes once you scan your ticket). From one end of the car, you can see all the lights at a glance and spot an open seat. Made to make the seat-searching process for boarding riders easier and quicker.
  • Digital itinerary screen - Located in the back of the seat in front of the rider (facing them). It displays itinerary with all the stops and real-time updates of trip status once you scan your ticket. It is not touchscreen. We considered this, but found it too similar to what exists in airplanes, which is not suitable for train rides because the trips are too short to show full feature films, and many riders like to read or do work on their own computers during the trip. We also liked the simplicity and focus of its single function. All you had to do was scan, and your trip status would show on the screen.
  • Seat weight sensor - In the seat to detect if someone is sitting in it. If it detects 50 lbs (heavier than most bags but light enough to detect younger children) it prompts the rider through instructions on the screen to check in. Also allows the train staff to see where people are sitting.

We say it is "feedback-driven" because all the parts are connected and can change based on what the trip status is and what the rider does. It also provides information to the conductor/staff about where their passengers are sitting and if they need to check on anyone.

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(Above: My drawing of our prototype)

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(Above: Prototype iteration slide from final presentation)


User Testing:


(Above: Making our cardboard mockup user testing)

We tested a cardboard mockup with several users and refined our seat. With minimal instruction of how they were meant to interact with the system, we asked them to talk through their thought process as we demoed it to them. We also asked them to redraw any screens they thought could be improved. We incorporated their feedback in our final iteration. 

As a result, we changed the text on the screens to include more explicit instructions for the rider, reasons for trip delay (we previously only had the new ETA), and added a conductor interface so they could see where all their passengers were sitting and if there was anyone who was sitting in a seat but had not checked in yet.


(Above: Testing with users and asking them to draw screen redesigns)



Presented our process and solution to our class of 60 with a live demo of the seat prototype at the end of the semester.

We are scheduling a call with the VP of Customer Experience, whom we spoke with before, to discuss our findings and proposed solution.

View our final presentation below:


What I Learned:

  • Got certified in Sketching for Product Design
  • How to talk to internet strangers (they're more receptive than you'd think)
  • How to pivot over and over (empathy and patience when receiving feedback is key)
Carmen Lau