Building a collaborative relationship with a travel buddy for multimodal journey planning

Yeonju Jeon finished her graduation 31st of August 2021. I invited to describe her findings.

Life is a series of choices from a small decision such as choosing what to have for dinner to a major decision that will change the course of life ahead. And we are handing over many simple and repetitive decisions to computers. We used to depict a dystopian future where the world is taken over by machines and robots. To this day, where we get recommended with new content by the algorithm and automatically filtering out spam by machine learning, we are still concerned about the negative impact that technology will bring in our lives. If we can’t stop machines from mimicking what we do, then wouldn’t it be our job to give it the right intention that will benefit us?

As cities are cutting polluting cars out of the picture and promoting sustainable transport modes, the number of multimodal journeys that involve more than one transport mode will grow. Intelligent systems and smart assistants will take their role to guide travelers along their way providing a personalized and seamless experience on the trail of mobility infrastructure weaved in cities. When travel assistants become normal, the way we plan and make a journey will change as we can see from our past. Before smartphones, access to travel information was restricted. Even after transport service providers started building digital systems for vehicle operation and multimodal journey planning, we used to check a timetable before we left our houses. Now, we can plan a journey anywhere and at any time with a few clicks on an app and apps are evolving to provide an enjoyable and personalized experience to become a travel buddy that accompanies travelers throughout their journey. 

Figure: Evolution of journey planning tools, from printed timetables to mobile applications

6 months ago, I embarked on my thesis with this initial research question: 

And here is my answer. A travel buddy will provide customized service connecting travelers with their surroundings and travelers will also be actively involved in this process to bridge the gap between human and computational decision-making. The journey planning apps we are using these days are leaning towards simplifying the interaction to ensure the accuracy and reliability of their recommendation and travel information. However, simplification can result in neglecting contextual factors that are important determinants for human decision-making. Travelers often feel that the route recommendations don’t correspond to the way they plan or make a journey which results in decreased trust and expectation on such apps. 

There is a fundamental difference between the machine operating system and the human brain. It’s not always about getting from A to B as soon as possible for humans. Sometimes, they like taking a detour when the weather is nice and the term convenience can also be defined in various ways. Understanding this decision-making and travel pattern of each individual is crucial and this can only be done with travelers’ participation. Thus, I would like to suggest the relationship between a travel buddy and travelers be a collaborative one, getting to know each other better and moving forwards to achieve the same goal to fill in the gap between what a travel assistant offers and what travelers need. 

Figure: Quotes of participants who shared their use case of journey planning apps and travel needs.

Throughout my research, I explored the fundamental needs and contextual determinants that influence travelers’ decisions. Based on these findings, I defined 9 things that should be considered to build a collaborative relationship between a travel buddy and travelers. 

  1. Aim to establish a relationship that is valuable for both sides.
  2. Be aware of users’ different personal dispositions when determining the attitude to approach users.
  3. The different motives and contexts of each trip should be considered when giving travel guidance.
  4. Show the value of collaborating with a travel buddy.
  5. Enhance positive experiences that multimodal travelers appreciate.
  6. Be transparent and provide comprehensible information on what a travel buddy does and how it does. 
  7. Let users be in control of their journeys.
  8. Use cognitive cues to linger longer in users’ heads.
  9. Be less assertive, but be there when needed. 

Figure: A manifesto of a travel buddy, 9 considerations for designing and implementing a travel buddy 

A travel buddy with an intention to actively learn and adopt not only the preferred transportation mode but also the underlying motivation and contextual needs of multimodal travelers can be beneficial in many ways. A travel buddy can benefit users by understanding and catering to users’ fundamental and situational needs which results in enhancing the autonomy of users and engagement with the experience. For product improvement, it translates the users’ needs and underlying determinants in a form of parameters and delivers them to the computational system so that the route recommendation can be more aligned to actual travel behavior. Additionally, defining a travel type allows users to be aware of their travel behavior, acting as a tool to analyze and reflect one’s travel behavior, and changing travel behavior. 

Figure: An experience prototype I developed that depicts a travel buddy that asks travelers to participate to gain a better understanding of travelers 

Although technology such as digital systems, smart assistants, electrification is encouraging and enabling sustainable change and technological support should be accompanied to develop a successful travel buddy, I believe that it is a human-centered approach that will breathe life into a machine.  The clarification and translation of human needs to computational language will be one requirement, and the visual language such as user interface components should be redefined when we are interacting with a smart assistant in a more human-like way. Lastly, the impact of defining a travel type on behavior change should be investigated. In the beginning, analyzing and defining a traveler’s travel type was incorporated to present needs and be confirmed by travelers so that a travel buddy can respond accordingly. However, it was also found that it is likely to work the other way around. It can also make users change their travel pattern to fit that type defined by a travel buddy. “A matter of who is adopting who?” has ever been a theme for a discussion when we talk about technology since it can be very pervasive. There is only a very fine line between dystopia and utopia and I believe that it will be determined with our intentions and purposes to deploy technology-enabled solutions.

If you’re interested in this graduation project, you can see the whole project process, findings of each research activity and experience the whole journey with a travel buddy through this link.