WMATA Customer Payment Study

Following a user-centered design approach, I conduct research into the D.C. Metro’s customer experience. Through interviews and a competitive analysis, I learned key insights into user behaviors and attitudes, which led to key recommendations on how to improve the payment process.


WMATA (or Metro) is the transit agency that manages and operates metro rail service, bus service, and paratransit service in the Washington, DC metro area. The bus service and metro service collectively move nearly 1 million people a day throughout the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Since 1999, the transit agency has offered a contactless, stored-value smart card for bus and metro payment, similar to the size of a credit card.

Despite some incremental improvements, the system hasn’t been improved in nearly two decades. As this was for a graduate school assignment, I envisioned WMATA had asked me to consult and research what improvements it should adopt for its payment system.


My research was guided by three main goals:

  • Identify customer behaviors and usage patterns in relation to the SmarTrip payment system
  • Evaluate how well the current payment system is matching user needs and goals
  • Discover new ideas and customer insights that will help WMATA improve the user experience of the payment system as a whole

Main research methods were:

  • Conducting user interviews with WMATA customers
  • Performing a competitive analysis of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco’ transit agencies payment systems


During a thematic analysis, I coded data with an affinity diagramming activity with key insights from user interviews.

Through our user research study, we learned that WMATA’s users were often very satisfied with the metro system overall. However, they felt there are several areas of improvement. Users want more flexible payment options; the ability to pay with your phone, manage your account more easily, have the ability to use one SmarTrip card for more than one person, and want clearer instructions for tourists and new residents. There are also a few things that even life-long riders of metro did not understand — what the different beeps mean when boarding a bus, or that  you can reload your SmarTrip card at retail stores across the D.C. area.

While the D.C. metro was one of the first systems to offer a card to pay for service, other transit systems have caught up and surpassed D.C.’s technology and offerings. Chicago’s transit agency offers a more flexible payment system. It allows riders to pay with credit card directly at faregates, Apple or Google Pay, as well as paper tickets and cards like D.C.’s. WMATA has the potential to create a more seamless and efficient user experience across its payment service. 

Main takeaways
  • Overall, users mentioned how pleased and satisfied they were with the metro and bus system, as well as the SmarTrip card to pay for service.
    • “It’s been positive — it’s useful, the card has never broken and I’ve never had a card that didn’t work” – participant 2
  • There are number of common things users are often confused about with the payment features and functionality
    • Users don’t understand the bus payment beeps when boarding and were unaware of the option to reload SmarTrip cards at retail stores and on most buses
  • The time it takes for value to be active on a card after it’s added online frustrates users, they don’t understand why it’s different than adding value at stations.
  • Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco’s transit systems are generally more flexible, giving users more options to pay for fares as well as mobile apps to help manage user accounts.
Top recommendations
  • Seek out technology upgrades that emphasize improved user experiences. Investigate mobile app payment, mobile apps in general, as well as improving the experience going in or out of the faregates.
  • Improve information and instructions at metro stations to help orient users to the SmarTrip payment program
  • Investigate feasibility to allow multiple riders per card which would help tourists reduce the upstart cost to ride the system
  • Consider running advertising campaigns focused on common misunderstandings; what the beeps mean when boarding a bus, the option to add value on a bus, as well as the option to add value to SmarTrip cards at retail stores across the D.C. area
  • Evaluate station kiosks by conducting usability sessions or direct field observations
  • Discover how well the online account system works for users by conducting usability testing
Image result for WMATA station faregates

Lessons learned

  • It can be helpful to communicate to stakeholders clear expectations. Exploratory research like this often only brings back high-level themes and additional research questions or opportunities for deeper dives.
  • If there was more time, conducting a field study at stations and on buses may have been an efficient way to gather customer insights.