If you’re ever looking for an example of how failing to put the user needs at the heart of technology based communication can cause unnecessary pain and heartache it’s hard to beat the British railway system and the experiences they deliver.
Case in point, at my local station they recently upgraded the information boards, moving to new fully digital screens, no doubt powered by a more efficient and easy to manage system. It’s not obvious that the motivation for this had anything to do with customer needs, and most likely it was driven by organisational requirements, but I bet there was confidence that the customers would be appreciative of the change. As a customer it’s fair to say the screens have good resolution and are crisp and easy to read.
And they certainly made the station look better, it looked better as soon as they were installed, even before they were turned on. Unfortunately, they made acquiring information about trains harder, surprisingly hard in fact, injecting confusion and frustration into a familiar process.
Worse still, it wasn’t simply an unasked-for requirement of becoming familiar with a new system, recognisable to any technology user after an ‘upgrade’ to a well known system. Getting information from the new system is just as painful every time. In fact, I would be prepared to speculate that those new screens have made every single journey for every single customer through that station ever so slightly worse since the day they were turned on.
If you’ve ever read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman then you’ll be familiar with Crowley the demon. (If you haven’t ever read Good Omens, shame on you, it’s brilliant, but don’t worry the BBC are putting together what promises to be an amazing dramatisation of it at the moment). When reporting to Hell, Crowley boasts of his innovative new approach; things like tying up the telephone networks at lunchtimes. To his dismay his traditionalist superiors don’t understand and are dismissive of his achievements.
“What could he tell them? That twenty thousand people got bloody furious? That you could hear the arteries clanging shut all across the city? And that then they went back and took it out on other people? In all kinds of vindictive little ways which, and here was the good bit, they thought up themselves. For the rest of the day. The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousands and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish, and you hardly had to lift a finger.”
So how has the station managed to achieve the same standard of soul tarnish as one of Hell’s great innovators? Through a simple but incredibly painful subversion of expectations around information hierarchy. This probably sounds technical and pedantic, but it’s not.
There are multiple ways you can organise information in a train station. But the essential information for decision making has two pillars; time and destination. Of which, given the fixed nature of a rail line, time is the pre-eminent. The most important information most customers are looking for on arrival is when the next train to their destination leaves and where from.
This is why the majority of stations in the UK use dynamic systems that order train information on boards or screens from left to right, with the next train to leave on the furthest left.
This has been true since the era of mechanical information boards, which makes it almost impossible to understand why, at my station, they have chosen to use an infinitely flexible digital system to display the train information by platform and to fix that order.
Here’s the scenario, as a care-worn British commuter you know there is a 50% chance that the train you take every day will be late, cancelled or leaving from a different platform to normal. Your train, for example is the 07:58. It is the key identifier, as other trains may be going to the same destination at similar times. Therefore that is what you need to find on the board. But the information isn’t ordered chronologically by time. In the hierarchy the intended time of the train comes after platform, and destination.
You might start your hunt or information on the platform you know it normally leaves from, platform 1, but actually there is another train that leaves 3 minutes before, so there is no recognition on that board that your train even exists. The next trains from platform 2, 3 and 4, don’t arrive for at least another half an hour, but because the boards are fixed to platforms that information is visible, while the train that leaves in ten minutes is not. They have included a ‘next departure to’ board, so you can find out some information on there, but that is prioritised by destination and so while it tells you the next train, it doesn’t necessarily tell you about the circumstance for your train.
The simple fact that the information displayed is not ordered by the key variable, expected time of departure, makes the task of walking into the station and checking that a train has not been subjected to unexpected change, significantly more onerous.
Someone deliberately made a conscious choice to order the information that way. In doing so, they clearly didn’t think about the context, the customers, their needs or what would work best. We have to presume that to the person setting up the system one ordering system was as good as another and displaying the information in numbered platform order seemed perfectly logical.
It’s easy to over reach when upgrading services and it’s easy to overlook the important things. Making sure the single most important thing to customers is improved by the changes you make is good, but ensuring that it isn’t damaged is essential.
That simple oversight in the station information boards has made every journey, for every customer, a little bit worse every day for the past 6 months. A little bit of frustration every single day, not enough to complain about for the stoic British commuter, just a tiny bit more friction, a tiny bit more irritant to disturb their calm. Crowley would be delighted.