Last year I wrote about smartphones as enablers of antisocial noise levels:
Your phone helps you check out of the uncomfortable situation. That’s why when there’s a disco, the seated areas are aglow with phones.
Smartphones have lots of excellent uses, but I’m interested in a feature we never talk about: the smartphone as a sign that something is broken. There are times when the use of a smartphone signals that something is wrong just as clearly as a dead canary being hauled out of a coalmine. For example: how many times have you used your smartphone for train information, when you’re standing in the station? You use it because it’s a quicker and easier source of the information you need than the station staff, or the live departure boards, or the timetable information displayed in the station.
Another example: I have a friend who uses her phone’s GPS to track the route when she’s on a bus she hasn’t caught before. Why? Because it’s a better source of route information than anything you’ll find on the bus itself. I’m not criticising the completely rational individual choice to use your smartphone for travel information. I’m just looking at what that means for people who don’t have the privilege of being web-literate, being able to afford a smartphone with a mobile data package, being able to use a phone without hand or wrist pain. For people without all that privilege, the train station’s information systems are broken and that glowing rectangle in your hand might as well be a dead canary.
If providing a positive user experience was the priority for the organisations who provide bus services, all buses would have London-style stop announcements. If information about all the stops on a route is available on a screen and each stop is announced by a recorded voice, how many people will be whipping out their smartphone for GPS info? A bus route where nobody needs a smartphone is a bus route where people without smartphones don’t need to neurotically squint out of the window, rely on the kindness of drivers or risk missing their stop. It’s a route that people can use for the first time without feeling anxious, which means it’s a route that’s welcoming to new users.
If providing a good user experience was the priority for the organisations who run our trains, we’d get the information we need much further in advance. The current system involves displaying as many forthcoming departures as will fit on a fixed number of screens. In busy stations, that could mean less than half an hour ahead. Twenty minutes or so sounds like enough time until you’ve actually been in the position of catching a train at a large station for the first time.
This year I went to Amsterdam for the first time. My journey home started with catching a tram from the conference centre to Amsterdam Centraal station. I went through what looked like the main entrance, expecting a grand plaza-style station concourse, and was surprised to find a few small shops and two small information screens. I wasn’t sure I was in the right part of the station. And my train wasn’t showing up on the screens yet. I thought of going to look at the platform-specific departure information, but when I wandered towards the platforms I realised there were at least ten of them and they all seemed to be up a flight of stairs. I struggle with lifting heavy cases at the best of times, thanks to RSI, and this time my hand was bleeding as well, so I was even more reluctant to lug the case up and down ten flights of stairs on the off-chance of getting my platform info sooner. But I also really wanted the chance to find out in advance where the damn platform was, because I was ill with a virus and moving more slowly than usual.
Finally, half an hour before departure, my train showed up on the “main” departure screens. Well, a Thalys train showed up. But this one was heading to Paris, and I was going to Brussels. On my way to Amsterdam, I’d come within a whisker of boarding the wrong Thalys, leaving at exactly the same time as the right Thalys, and I was frightened of doing the same thing again. I became even more alarmed when trains scheduled for after my own train started showing up on the screen, but there was still no sign of a Thalys train to Brussels.
I queued up for the information desk and a very snappy woman told me that the Paris train was the same as the Brussels train. Why couldn’t it just say that on the departure info screens? “Because it is too early. You are too early.” Apparently the details only appear within ten minutes of the train’s departure.
At this point, it was twenty minutes to departure. I was ill, sleep-deprived, carrying a heavy case, in a strange country, with a bleeding hand. But I was made to feel like a diva for wanting to know which platform my train was leaving from. Once I had that information I headed straight for the platform, but it took me another ten minutes or so to walk there and find the lift.
The platform was crowded when I reached it. Clearly the passengers who’d worked out which platform to use didn’t agree with the assessment that it was “too early” to know. There were two officials in hilarious caps putting us into groups according to which carriage our ticket was for. In other words, there was a perceived need at this point to get passengers on the platform organised, but no perceived need to actually tell potential passengers which platform to use.
It seems very likely that the Thalys for Brussels almost always leaves from the same platform at Amsterdam Centraal. In other words, there’s a two-tier system where people familiar with the station and the journey have the luxury of heading to the platform in a leisurely manner, while new users of the station are deemed to be “too early” and must wait and wait and wait, then run.
Presumably the full platform info did finally appear on the departure screens downstairs; I don’t know, because if I’d waited for it I might have missed the train. And I’m aware that despite the virus and the bleeding hand and all the rest of it, I still had a massive stack of privilege on my side: I can walk unaided, I was helped by English-speaking people, I wasn’t travelling with a toddler in a buggy or a friend with disabilities.
I wrote in my post on empathy and usability that organisations don’t need to care, they just need to act as if they do. Likewise, organisations don’t need “common sense”, they just need to gather data on user behaviour.
You don’t need to understand that uncertainty is stressful and offputting, or that passengers can’t relax if they’re not sure they’re in the right place. You just need to look at when passengers with the privilege of smartphones and/or familiarity with the route are heading to the platform. You can then take an educated guess that other people would like to go to the platform at roughly the same time. People who don’t want to go to the platform that early will still appreciate the information that their train is on time (or not).
Of course train departure information is subject to change right up until the last minute (and beyond) and there are limiting factors. But one limiting factor can be removed: the number of screens available. Why allow that to be an arbitrary cap on the information available to people in the station? We have a mean culture in our train stations that says two screens will do; why not be generous instead, and have three? Or if it’s a really busy station which already has three, why not go for four? It’s easy to tell when you have enough information screens: all the smartphones in sight will be used for fun things like games or tweeting rather than for basic information that should be available to everybody. From dead canary to Angry Birds: all it takes is a bit of user-focused thinking.