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Revitalizing Chicago’s Union Station

By Stephanie Hlywak

February 22, 2024

mockup of directional app
Making Navigation More Intuitive for New Users

Chicago’s Union Station is both a functional marvel and a historic relic. Named a Chicago landmark in 2002 and designated one of “America’s Great Places” in 2012 by the American Planning Association, it saw nearly 44 million entries and exits in 2018, making it the fourth busiest station in the country.

Union Station Was Named a Chicago Landmark in 2002
44 Million Passenger Entries and Exits at Chicago's Union Station in 2018
Union Station is the 4th Busiest Train Station in the US

As anyone who has been to Union Station knows, it’s a labyrinth with conflicting signage and long distances between tracks. One of the unique features of the station is that it serves as a hub for local commuters (85 percent of the trains that come in and out of this station are Metra trains, which serve the city and its suburbs) as well as out of town visitors who use Amtrak. While Metra passengers are habitual riders with very clear senses of direction, Amtrak users may be visiting Chicago or Union Station for the first time.

Simplifying navigation for these newcomers is essential to increasing satisfaction among rail riders. Jiwon Shin (MDes 2024) and Amina Awad (MDes 2024) developed a system by which experienced travelers can guide first-timers, including a dedicated platform for knowledge-sharing. The end goal is to increase the use of Amtrak services at Union Station and provide a more enjoyable travel experience for everyone.

85 Percent of Travelers Visit Union Station Via Metra (Local Passengers)
15 Percent of Travelers Visit Union Station Via Amtrak (Out-of-Town Passengers)
Simplifying navigation for newcomers is essential to increasing satisfaction among all rail riders.
diagram of sources of frustration for train station users

Visitors to Union Station face multiple sources of frustration in navigating the space.

Conducting User Research

As part of the Principles and Methods of User Research course with Associate Professor Kim Erwin, Jiwon and Amina drew from the fields of anthropology and design as well as the intersection between these fields to explore questions like: what is a “user” and why might it be important to conduct research from a user-centered perspective?

Their work began with three research questions:

  1. How do expert users of Union Station construct a journey?
  2. What role does the station play? And what can be done to make the experience of navigating it better?
  3. What’s missing to help new riders function like expert riders?

Ideal Research Plan

100 Observations Across Dayparts
4 Subject Matter Expert Interviews
28 Surveys of Frequent Versus Non-Frequent Commuters

To answer the questions above, the team created an ideal research plan. Different methodologies addressed each specific question. The first question would be answered using 12 “diary studies” among expert riders to understand their practices and habits, capture their mental models, and gather contextual information for journey mapping.

The second question, pertaining to the role of the Station and how to improve it, became the focus of the actual research conducted by the team. It involved three different research methods in order to understand the role of Union Station itself. Ideally, the team would have conducted:

  • 100 observations across dayparts, weekdays versus weekends, and at various exit locations;
  • 4 subject matter expert interviews (i.e. Union Station front-line staff and administration, Amtrak, and government representatives); and
  • 28 intercept surveys of frequent versus non-frequent commuters across various age demographics.

Actual Conducted Research

18 Observations Across Dayparts
1 Subject Matter Expert Interview
2 Hours Surveying Commuters

For the scope of the course, however, they were only able to conduct 18 observations, one subject matter interview, and two hours of commuter surveys.

Additionally, in the ideal research plan, the team would have gone in depth with provotype interviews among similar groups to assess what was missing to help new Amtrak riders function like expert riders. (A provotype is described by designers Anthony Weiler and David McKenzie as a “provocative prototype that is introduced early in the exploratory phases of the design development process to cause a reaction—to provoke and engage people to imagine possible futures.”)

We are committed to making travel accessible to all, regardless of prior experience. By encouraging the use of public transportation, our project contributes to environmental sustainability. And our approach to transforming transportation hubs demonstrates the potential for community-driven change in a traditionally centralized industry.
—Jiwon Shin (MDes 2024) 

Long-Term Solutions

The results of their user research led them to lay out five design principles that could remake the Union Station experience for Amtrak users:

  1. Provide customer service training for staff: Since signage is confusing and not well used, courteous and knowledgeable staff with proper customer service training is needed to fill the gap in the navigational experiences of users.
  2. Simplify transit visibility: Simple visual and spatial cues can help showcase the many transit connections available to users.
  3. Build out Amtrak’s “gateway strategy”: Amtrak can seize the opportunity to better act as a “gateway” to Chicago by creating exit pathways through the station.
  4. Optimize pathways: The quickest way from A to B isn’t always the constructed path; people will take shortcuts where they can, and the station can better accommodate user preferences by constructing these “paths of desire”
  5. Clarify transit options: Union Station is not a destination but the beginning of a journey into the city. Users can be better oriented to that experience with clearer transit options.


Short-Term Fixes

The space needs urgent attention. As the longer-term solutions above are addressed, the students recommended three short-term fixes to the challenges for novice commuters.

Floor Plan Stickers and Banners

Floor plan stickers and banners can create literal paths to follow out of the station.

Enhanced Customer Service

Enhanced customer service, including more staff and more touchpoints, can help with wayfinding.

Interactive Kiosks

Interactive kiosks on train platforms can help visitors with more information.

Pulling Into the Station

Ultimately, the result of their inquiry led the students to establish a dedicated knowledge-sharing ecosystem where both experienced travelers and first-time users can contribute their insights about Union Station. Such a system empowers new visitors to quickly become experts in navigating the station, while seasoned travelers continue to provide valuable guidance. Drawing on user feedback, the students also recommend improvements in station signage and wayfinding to simplify navigation and encourage first-time users to take the lead in helping others find their way, cultivating a sense of shared expertise.

The project envisions the transformation of Union Station into a more accessible and user-friendly transportation hub while also removing barriers for travelers of all experience levels.

The project envisions the transformation of Union Station into a more accessible and user-friendly transportation hub while also removing barriers for travelers of all experience levels.

In redefining the travel experience and promoting a culture of shared knowledge and support, the work has the potential to shift the norms and expectations around transportation hubs. As the project scales and gains more traction, its impact can become even more significant by attracting a larger and more diverse user base, resulting in a more robust knowledge-sharing platform and a stronger sense of community. The improved signage and wayfinding can also serve as a model for other transportation hubs seeking to enhance their user experience. While the project is in its early stages, the students believe it holds the potential to have a substantial impact on Union Station and the broader community as it scales and gains momentum.


  • Jiwon Shin
  • Amina Awad