Seoul UX report - glimpse into the public transportation back


This report was prepared as part of the World Usability Day activities with the purpose of contributing best practice examples to the international sustainable design community. It is layed out in a format of a passenger’s story – a person who is taking bus from a busy Sinchon area in North of Han river in Seoul to go to the City Hall (intersection of two subway lines) and returns to Sinchon via subway.

Finding the right bus

Seoul, which hosts almost half of the country’s 48 mln. population, being the best representative of Korea, is known to strive for efficiency in everything. Efficiency in transportation starts from homework – before hitting the street, I usually go to Seoul public transportation system guide and check what bus should I take.

Seoul public transportation system guide

Upon inputing Departure and Destination points, system shows the best choice first and sorts the options in accordance to the time it takes from A to B. Thus, if I take bus #603, I’ll spend 14 minutes on the road while bus #472 will bring me to the destination in 16 minutes (on average, depending on traffic). If I enlarge the map, it also shows what buses stop in bus stops, main buildings around the area, subway lines and exits. As a matter of fact, this website is of gold value to those who speak zero Korean since all the information in the bus stops is in Korean. The next task after identifying the route is to find the bus stop.

Departure and Destination points on map

Finding the bus stop

Seoul, World Design Capital of 2010 is also poked for being capital of visual noise since day and night Seoul lives in the battle of signboards and ads. Therefore finding a bus stop is not as easy as it may seem. Intuitively one looks for some familiar sign to mark the bus stop, but these signs disappear in Seoul’s visual noise. Thus, the easiest way to find a bus stop is…. to see where the buses stop. And it’s very easy since in Seoul’s main streets buses buzz continuously.

Bus stop signboard (no booth)

Even when booth is present, bus stop becomes visible only when bright buses arrive

Recognition of bus number is easy – number is written on all 4 sides of the bus. However, highlights of the route posted on front and right side of the bus are in Korean, thus, again, of zero value to non-Korean speakers.

Recognition of bus number is easy (I)

Recognition of bus number is easy (II)

Bus route maps

There are three types of bus route maps: the ones posted on bus stop signboards, the general rout map and detailed stop map inside the bus.

Route map in bus stop. Shows direction from current stop, and only the major stops along the route. Intersections with subway are highlighted in blue. Some English

Route map in the bus – the most concise one, with all the stops included and intersections with subway marked in subway line color. No English

Route map in bus. General map type visualisation, shows only main stops. Some English

Getting off the bus

While taking bus, names of the upcoming and the next bus stop are announced in Korean, while only the upcoming bus stop is mentioned in English. Therefore, hearing impaired non-Korean customers might find it difficult to get off at the right stop, especially since there are no info plafoons with station names in buses, neither bus stop names can be well seen on bus stop booths. It might seem that stressing possible inconveniences for non-Korean customers is very much an outsider’s view, however, I emphasize it in the light of Seoul’s efforts to become the truly global metropolis.

Bus driver should be informed of intention to get off at the upcoming bus stop by pressing the “stop bell”. Else, if none is waiting at the bus stop driver might either pass it without stopping (efficiency) or, if there are any potential customers, open only the front door for incoming passengers (rear door is for getting off).

Finding the best route underground

As in the case of bus route search, there is a handy website for calculating the most efficient route underground. Upon marking the departure and destination stops system calculates the fastest way to reach the destination and also shows which car to choose for the optimal transfer (in case transfer is necessary). The screenshot is included just for information purposes since for travel from City Hall to Sinchon, one needs to take subway line #2 (green) without transfer.

Travel from City Hall to Sinchon

Finding the underground

While looking for subway entrances one faces the same problem as when locating bus stops – signboards tend to disappear in the visual noise. Similar as with bus stops, subway entrances can be either covered with roof or uncovered. Thus, marking system is also different.

One of the entrances to subway with roof.

Entrance #8 to City Hall subway. Two more entrances (with roofs) to the same subway stop over the street. Due to colors used they are hardly visible. Green color communicates this is entrance to the green subway line.

Finding the way under the ground

City Hall is an intersection of two subway lines (line #1 blue and line #2 green) and has 12 exits/entrances. Various navigation aids are available to help customers find the way in such a vivid and complicated artery.

All subway stations are marked with a line corresponding to the color of the line that runs in this stop. Map shows vicinities of the subway stop in the diameter of 1km, key landmarks depending on exit number and direction to the exit.

Various visual aids available for helping customer to find the way to the right line

Choosing the right platform is made easy my noting the major stops along the route to each direction

Name of the current stop occupies major space while previous and next stops are included below. Information on transfer route to line #1 is on blue background

While on the train, upcoming stop is announced on electronic boards (in Korean and English), however, in majority of trains the announcements are verbal (in both langauges). In addition to this customer at any stop is exposed to a horizontal line at the eye level colored corresponding to color of line that passes this stop. Sequence of stops depicted in a linear fashion, with emphasis on the current stop. For better visibility signboards are attached to the walls in front of car doors

Line route map with marked intersections with other lines above one door (usually around 3 maps like this in one car)

Route map of all Seoul subway above the opposite door (also around 3 maps like this in one car)

Upon passing the toll gates, customer faces a web of exits, however, finding the way to the needed number is successfully aided by extensive signage in both Korean and English


Easy to notice that Seoul is a city where life under the ground (taking subway) is way easier for a foreigner than life on the ground (taking buses). One might argue that buses are more of a means of local transportation while tourists tend to use either subway or taxi for getting from A to B. However, if taking buses was easier for non-Korean speakers, buses benefiting from exclusive lane with far more extensive network of stops than subway are very convenient way of transportation. As for the subway, even though it might at times seem to be overcrowded with signs, the signs are informative and helpful to find the way, however, it takes some time to understand them and remember what to look for.

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