Fostering Community on the R44

In IDP 316 - Portfolio, Uncategorized by Mirella Hernandez

By: Lucy Kneissler, Mirella Hernandez, Natalie James, Rose Silverman


For Deep Dive #2, our intervention space was the  R44 Bus on the Pioneer Valley Transport Authority. We chose this space because we wanted to observe how its mobile quality aligned with the bus community. The R44 goes to two public housing projects in Northampton, the Hampshire House of Corrections, Big Y, Stop N Shop, Walmart and the VA Medical Center. The R44 community consists of warm, charismatic, helpful human beings who were very happy to help with our project. Initially, we were a bit anxious about disrupting this space but with the help of the R44 riders we were welcomed into it. As we began to collect information for our project and as we continued to move through the design thinking process,we came to understand the real importance of human centered design. Our project was full of surprises and lessons. In the end, we were equipped with lots of inspiration for creating a human centered design.  

Read on to find out how we moved through the design thinking process!



In order to understand the R44 bus and the experience of its users (i.e. the riders), we needed to actually board the bus! So we did. On three Wednesday afternoons, we rode the R44. On each ride, we chatted and interviewed different riders. We wanted to get a sense of who our riders were, how they felt while riding the bus, why they rode the bus in the first place, how they liked to use the space/what they wanted to be able to do on the bus. From these initial questions, we hoped we would be able to build a better picture of an intervention to add to this multi-faceted, mobile space.

 We will include riders from each of our three riders who helped us understand the current experience of and potential for riding the R44 bus:


Introducing the People of the R44:

 Flo: A friendly, chatty woman who approached us on the bus for small talk.

John:  An older, longtime resident of Northampton with a lot of historical knowledge about the Pioneer Valley.

James: Old man. Very reserved and quiet. Absolutely thrilled about the name-tag. Especially enjoyed writing something himself. Travelled with a lot of grocery bags.

Terry: A veteran, frequent rider of the bus who used it to access much of Western Massachusetts including Chicopee, Springfield and Florence.

Martha: A woman with a lot of cats on her reusable grocery bags. Most likely coming from an appointment at the Starlight Center.

Emily: Older woman, retired accountant. Getting allergy shots. Jehovah’s Witness. Suffers from chronic illnesses: Crohn’s Disease and cancer.

Cindy: New owner of a used car. Takes advantage of free dinners at a church in Northampton. Went on bus with her friend who was buying beer for her boyfriend.

Susan: A loudmouth resident of Northampton who rides the bus to get to the library. Very progressive. Former social worker.



NEW Flo POV:  Flo, a chatty and affectionate 66-year old resident of Meadowbrook, rides the bus daily in search of a community she can connect with outside her home.

-Quick to connect

-Seeks physical validation

-Interacts through touch

 OLD POV: Flo, a chatty and approachable 66-year old resident of Meadowbrook, rides the bus daily to run errands and socialize with the community she has built at Stop ‘N Shop.


Why does Flo have to travel to find community?

NEW POV John: John feels a personal responsibility to share his historical knowledge about Northampton, but is limited by others’ disinterest.

-needs a space to share what he knows

OLD POV John: John, a longtime resident of Northampton, rides the R44 frequently to run errands and visit familiar places.




-Pictures of us brainstorming/sticky notes

In order to ideate for a solution to the issue of community building on the R44 we each wrote 15 ideas on post-it notes and organized them into common themes.

We used the whiteboard space in Capen Annex to write down observations and then inferences. This aided us in brainstorming even more ideas.






-Pictures of nametags #1 and #2 with accompanying descriptions/our thinking behind their designs? Especially the edits from #1 to #2

Nametag 1: This prototype came from our perception that our users needed a way to connect with one another. It gives space for people in the R44 community to write their name if they’d like to and/or say how they’re feeling and whether or not they are open to social interaction.


Nametag 2: After testing our 1st prototype, Nametag 1, we realized the users felt intimidated with how open ended the nametags were. The users who did wore the name tag, they chose to only write their name. For our first name tag we assumed users would use the name tag space to also express their thoughts and feeling, but they didn’t. Therefore, we decided to minimize the options users have on the name tag by letting the users  write their name (if they want) and how they are feeling. We did this by using creating “fill in the blanks” on the our original name tags. We also decided to create a traditional paper name tag, for users who  might have a difficult time using the magnets name tag 1 has. We decided to work with both nametags on our third ride.  




*For a reminder of who these users are/more background information, you can refer to our Empathy stage and find our ‘Cast of Characters’ section!


Ride 1: Flo and John


On our first ride, we boarded the bus in full-on exploratory mode. We knew it was important to observe everything we saw on the R44. This meant noting the signs on the bus (primarily displaying the accessibility options for riders and an advertisement to be a foster parent), the landscapes and stops the bus moved through and the riders themselves. We were initially hesitant to talk to people as we attempted to process so much new information from our site. However, as it became more and more clear that many people on the bus were familiar with one another, it also became clear that we were not familiar with anyone other than one another. We encountered two users who enunciated our different positions on the bus: Flo and John. Flo and John are both regulars on the R44. Indeed, they called each other by name upon seeing each other. This was a phenomenon we saw play out many times throughout our three rides, indicating the community present on this bus built upon the consistency of its riders. These two both spent a majority of their time explaining to us that they ride the bus nearly everyday. Flo frequents the R44 to access Stop and Shop while John uses it to access a social service center and to run errands. Both are local to the area and have lived here for a long time. This enabled them to explain the bus, the landscapes it passes through and the benefits of the R44. We likely could not have encountered friendlier riders for our initial ride on the R44. They helped us understand the familiarity, convenience and consistency provided by this bus/it’s route. A deeper look into these two can be found in our Empathy section.


Ride 2: Flo, James, and Terry


                                        James                                                               Terry

On our second ride, we were wearing our first prototyped nametags. As illustrated in our Prototype section, our name tags said “I am….” and were otherwise blank. We each used the space to put our names and some sort of description e.g. “I am Rose and I am curious about the bus!” We wondered how people would interact with us now that we were more visible on the bus and whether we would see any returning users. Indeed, we ended up seeing Flo for the second time. This time, she was getting on at Stop and Shop with many groceries. We noticed that we were able to engage with riders like Flo around a very specific thing: the nametags we were wearing. This gave us a point of interaction that stretched beyond our luck of running into a user we had already met.  Because of our prototype, we could ask riders if they’d also like to wear the name tags. We also sat in groups of two this time, rather than the four of us clustered up in the front of the bus, where seats were not only more accessible but also where a majority of riders tended to want to sit. Lucy and Mirella sat in the front and Natalie and Rose sat in the back to engage with the rest of the riders. We found that having a tangible point of interaction, and displaying it on our own bodies, fostered conversation more naturally, even if it did not lead to everyone wanting to wear the name tags. Here are the responses to wearing the nametags:

 Flo: Flo was excited about the name tag and expressed that to Lucy and Mirella. However, when actually given the name tag, she put it in her pocket. She seemed to think of it as a gift and took it home with her. It is also important to note that she didn’t write anything on her nametag.

From this, we learned…The nametag is perhaps appealing aesthetically and also in its novelty. While a nametag itself isn’t particularly revolutionary, a magnetized surface amenable to erasable markers that is pre-engraved/marcated for the R44 bus is likely perceived as more exciting than another type of nametag. The fact that Flo did not connect the ways that Mirella and Lucy wore their nametags to how we had imagined she would also want to interact with the nametag is important. This means the design or intent behind the design was perhaps unclear or hard to translate for this very friendly user.

 James: This user was totally willing to wear the nametag. Indeed, he was generally very engaged as both a chatty rider with Lucy and Mirella but also with Flo, who he knew from off the bus. While James was excited about the nametag and did indeed write his name on it with an erasable marker, he displayed it on the outside of his sweatshirt pouch, in a spot that was fairly low down and hard for others to see. .

From this, we learned…that our intention for the nametag to be displayed in a way that would be accessible to all would not necessarily be how users would interpret the purpose of the nametag. James seemed to be excited about it for its newness and its ability to be worn, not necessarily to wear so that other could see it. However, it is meaningful that a.) James was excited about it and b.) that he was willing to write his name on his tag. While his choice of display didn’t seem like it would foster the kind of community-building effort we had idealized, he did meaningfully engage with the prototype and Mirella and Lucy.

 Terry: Natalie and Rose approached Terry largely because he seemed both used to riding the bus alone and approachable. Indeed, upon talking to him, Terry made it clear that he was unaccustomed to talking to other people on the bus but that he thought it was “nice” to talk to Natalie and Rose. He was a regular PVTA rider even beyond the R44 which made sense for how one could perceive his comfortability in the space. When asked about if he would wear the nametag, he said no. He said he wasn’t riding for that long of a time and that he didn’t really see the point. However, he did add that if everyone else was wearing the nametag he would too. Terry also mentioned that if he were to write something on his nametag he would write his name. The time with Terry concluded with him taking a picture with the nametag, which he seemed quite happy to do even though he was resistant to wearing it.

From this we learned…that there were plenty of reasons for why riders would say “no thanks” to wearing a name tag. Terry didn’t really seem to understand the point of identifying himself by name on the bus but also acknowledged that if others were doing it i.e. if the culture of the bus were one in which people were used to identifying themselves so they could call each other by name or engage with one another in some way, he would perhaps be interested in wearing it. This means that the value of a name tag takes a lot of work. In order for it to be used to build community, it would require a slight shift in culture on the bus. The ease of familiarity that dominates the R44 would need to expand to something more intentional that would allow encourage riders to share their identities with one another. However, the reasons that others may want to do this were seemingly easier for us to imagine than perhaps for the actual users of this bus space.


Ride 3: Emily, Cindy, Susan, Marta and Karen



On our third ride, we had gained an amount of familiarity with the route of the bus and its culture. We knew the stops, the ones that were often more popular than others (e.g. Stop and Shop vs. the Courthouse) and the ways that riders tended to engage with the driver and one another. For this final ride, we were excited to test out a more structured prototype that we hoped would make the intended use of the nametag more accessible in its new implicit guidelines, sustainability and the multitude of options for identifying one’s self. We each displayed the variations of nametags that our users could use to advertise the possibilities of the nametag. As we attempted to engage/were engaged with through our nametags, the challenges of the nametag and the tendency of people to use it as a point of interaction but not necessarily as a tool to wear was made even more clear than it had been before. Many lessons were learned from the users we met through Prototype #2.

 Emily: She was one of the few users who wore the name tag. Emily really liked the idea of wearing a nametag. She wrote her name and how she was feeling, “cold but happy”. Overall, she demonstrated to be a kind, optimistic person.

From this we learned… that people were willing to wear the name tag and use it as a conversation starter. Our conversation with Emily started due to what she wrote on her name tag, her feelings. After she spoke about how cold and happy she felt, she started to talk more about serious topics, such as her Crohn’s Disease her  her faith in God as a  Jehovah’s Witness. This showed us how the name tag can lead to meaningful, serious conversations. This also taught us how a person’s character leads to how impactful/powerful the name tag can be. A fail or success.

Susan: She rejected the idea of a name tag since she dislikes wearing them. If given one, she would just stick them in her hat, her cowboy hat. She wanted us to focus on public transportation funds instead.

From this we learned… that people simply don’t like name tags. When we were prototyping, we knew we would encounter users who would not want to wear the name tags, but we didn’t thing a user would go more beyond a rejection. Susan taught us not to focus on specific users. This was important to realize since the bus changes users all the time.

 Marta: Marta was the first person to enter the bus, and she sat at the front. She was slouching and looking at the ground most of the time.  She was wearing cat design pants. So, Lucy tried to use the cat design as a conversation starter. She seemed engaged when talking about her love of cats.  We tried talking to her about the name tags, but she seemed uninterested. When we did offer the name tag later in the bus, she kindly said no by telling us to give it to Susan instead.  

From this we learned… that people did not need name tags to start conversations. Marta showed more interest in the conversation when we were talking to her about what she liked. And we knew what she liked through what she was wearing and not the name tag. Her kind way of rejecting the name tag also showed that she was interested in talking to people on the bus, but not through our prototype.  

Karen: Natalie and Rose approached Karen to engage in some light conversation in order to build up to the question of asking if she wanted to wear a nametag. She initially was preoccupied on her phone and seemed like she didn’t want to talk. However, after explaining a bit more about the project and position as students at Smith, she opened up. When asked if she’d like to wear the name tag or if she ever would, Karen said no. She explained that this was because she didn’t need people “knowing her business” and followed this up by saying she didn’t even have a facebook. She also had mentioned that she was newer to the area and had moved here from New York just six months before. Karen continued to engage in a friendly conversation with Natalie and Rose even after expressing her displeasure with idea of identifying herself on the bus.

From this we learned…that there continue to be a multitude of reasons for why people say “no” to wearing the name tags. This one seemed concerned with safety and the perceived risks of riders knowing Karen’s name on the bus. While this logic/reasoning was not shared by anyone else, it makes sense for someone who is newer to the R44 community/someone who doesn’t engage in social media to feel hesitant about sharing personal information. It is hard to know how Karen would feel after riding the bus for longer or if the custom of wearing name tags were a more common practice on the bus.


Reflection/Lessons Learned:

Overall, we can say that this process enlightened our entire team on the necessity of human-centered design. However, one of the most important takeaways is that we failed. We tested, failed, pivoted(though not enough), and failed again. After testing our first prototype, we soon realized that our users were saying no to the solution that we had created. Where we failed was in our process for creating prototype two. We had not listened deeply enough to the no’s from prototype one so our lense for empathizing and defining for prototype two was flawed. Many of the R44 riders were able to foster community without the nametags. They engaged with one another when helping with groceries, giving up seats to folks who needed them, talking about the weather, and when they recognized a regular rider. After folks told us no, we interpreted the no as an issue with how we were delivering the prototype rather than there being a problem with the prototype itself. This led us to overlook the users’ needs which we found wasn’t the need for social interaction on the bus as we had initially thought.


Here are some of the lessons we have learned from our failure:


  • The bus is a mobile, multi-faceted space with as many needs as there are riders
  • So much of what makes R44 unique is the feeling that it’s full of “regulars”
  • Understanding what “regulars” want that will also resonate with a “non-regular” is  tricky!
  • Bus communities are often concerned with accessibility: physical, financial and social
    • We found that these issues are not only concerns, but also points of social interaction for riders  

Thanks for reading!

Our group enjoyed this project and R44 has come to mean a lot to each of us. We welcome you to comment about any questions/comments/suggestions you have.

-Lucy, Rose, Mirella, and Natalie