Apps, connectivity, shared data and train journeys. We need to get the basics right

Headshot of Hilary Stephenson

Managing Director

8 minute read

Apps, connectivity, shared data and train journeys. We need to get the basics right

I spent the early part of last week hosting a colleague from our Swedish IoT and analytics group. We’ll call him David, as that’s his name and I will share this with him by way of grovelling apology. The trip involved meeting him in London, before travelling to meet other colleagues in our Cambridge office. It’s a relatively simple and familiar trip but when you’re under the watchful gaze of a friend from the world of smart city and digital transformation projects, our broken services become a glaring embarrassment.

His first comment when I met him at Paddington was “Oh you have an app for train tickets now. That’s progress”. Smugly, and with a sense of blind national pride, I joked “yes, we’ll be cashless soon” (not in the failed economy sense, although…).

Our customer journey

Standing close to the platform with 5 minutes to get our train, I was feeling pretty chuffed with my hosting skills. I open the aforementioned app and found “My tickets” only to see an alphanumeric code and not the expected barcode for the scanner. Before I go on, I did get a few comments later about Oyster cards, Apple Pay and using my phone at the barrier, but I’d gone down the app route in order to use their handy expense feature and have everything in one account. Also, there's an important digital inclusion angle in here, so hear me out. On approaching a member of staff, I was advised I needed to walk back down the station entrance and find a ticket printing machine. “it’s not far” he said. I knew how far it was, as I’d just walked past it. Train now due in 4 minutes.

I found the machine, inserted my credit card and tapped in the code. Like every car parking machine or supermarket checkout experience I’ve ever had, I started to live that recurring nightmare where you can’t actually tap in a number. We are just too worried about what other people will think to read the instructions or make sense of a BIG interface when we're against the clock. The lovely Si Wilson covered this recently, in a post dedicated to the design awfulness of self-checkout machines. Now, I have relatively small fingers and I’m 5ft 8. This detail matters because every time I pressed a letter, something from the row above appeared, causing an audible sigh from the man behind me in the queue. So, I did a really affected knee bend, coupled with an overly performative screen touch, to show him I was really trying. Train now due in 2 minutes. I managed to get the tickets (the ones I could have bought easily without the app when I was under less pressure) and relocated David, who was now starting to smirk. I joked about him ending up with a full deck of the little orange and green beauties over the next two days.

A stack of train tickets fanned out like playing cards.

I’m a good host so I’d bought (and printed) his ticket. The wording on one said two coupons. I had no idea if this meant I had the right things, or the right number of things, but mine worked and his didn’t. He suggested it might be because he’d put it near his credit card but by this point, I think we both knew he was being kind. We both commented that the word coupon wasn’t that meaningful. I then had to ask a range of people, displaying a range of moods, to let David through at each barrier, while muttering something about him being Swedish. Disclosure: I have previous on this as when I travel in Sweden, I sometimes try to pay ridiculously small bus and boat fares with cash and they laugh and let me off when I say “sorry, I’m English”.

Still, we made the train and started our small-talk about Brexit, robotic process automation and the Netflix series on Trump. We were chatting away nicely when we both noticed the train had been stationary for a while. A nice woman in a sludge coloured outfit piped up and said we needed to get off. When I asked how she knew, she said she worked for the train company and had seen a chat with the driver about a broken rail. Very helpful, although David did ask if we should expect an official announcement…

Arriving at Broxbourne, a red-faced man on the platform stuck his head through the train doors and confirmed we all needed to get off. Cue, erm, queue formation in that classic British manner, where we all line up but don’t really know why. David asked if we could get a taxi to the office. As neither of us had ever visited Broxbourne, we asked and were advised it would be about 50 minutes to Cambridge, or we could wait for the free replacement bus. After joking he hadn’t been on a bus today, we agreed to sod it and get a taxi to Stansted, our reasoning being that we had another colleague arriving who we could pick up from there. That only cost us £70 but it was a seller’s market to be fair, given the frustration in the growing Broxbourne queue.

At Stansted, we only had to endure a 40-minute flight delay, before greeting our other colleague from Portugal, who breezed through saying he’d had a lovely relaxing morning. The “fast” 24/7 taxi hire service was our next step, which only involved another 20 minute wait and lots of chat about the taxis being busy due to a train failure north of Broxbourne.

Eventually, we made it to our office and spent the afternoon talking about digital transformation, service design, connected data and intelligent hardware.

Final destination, the hotel, where we were met with sparky young people with lovely t-shirts and mobile phones, eager to check us in. None of us realised they were the reception staff. That app worked; it’s just a shame all of us wanted a grown-up, desk-driven check-in from someone in a suit, just to make us feel like it was real and wasn’t going to fail. Check-out was just as perky, although watching someone wearing inch-long gels tap in a Swedish and Portuguese address into an Android phone, because email receipts that show tax require a full address, took a while longer than we were all expecting.

Heading back to London, we exchanged knowing looks about ditching the ticket app and collecting more cardboard from the big machine. If only I knew what London boundary 1 meant in terms of where we needed to be. Didn’t matter, as the train was cancelled and we were told to get the Brighton one instead, by a lovely man who loudly pronounced “this ticket wouldn’t have got you to Paddington anyway Madam, you needed London Terminals”. I just told David I was from Cumbria and we sat quietly for a bit.

How can we make this better?

  • Interfaces that require loads of instructions or use language and terminology that’s more meaningful to the service provider are useless to customers, particularly those who need to transact quickly
  • Users don't all do their homework, so assume you need to keep tasks and the language you use simple and supportive
  • Apps that don’t offer the full digital experience are rubbish. If you can’t unlock service provider silos or get different suppliers to share their data, don’t create the impression your app covers everything. Be honest and make it clear what manual and offline steps people need to take
  • Pre-empt disruption and apologise – it really matters when people are anxious or annoyed – check out Sarah Drummond’s excellent talk from Camp Digital on Designing for Service Failure and you’ll see the levels of frustration I’m talking about (and we’re supposed to be digitally savvy, in theory)
  • Consider your brand tone and how it might jar with some users. The “we’ve done away with our phones but hey, just WhatsApp us if you need anything” might not suit everyone, from weary travellers to overseas visitors
  • Be inclusive. I’ve been flippant, but hopefully not ableist, in how I’ve described the experience. Yes, I get anxious about travel but if I had specific access needs, either for technical or physical support, this journey would have been far, far worse. In this situation, wheelchair users had to return to London and I have no idea what provisions are in place for ramp access and assistance in the event of a train failure
  • The EU web accessibility directive is coming into force. We should all embrace it, whatever sector we are in but we really need to design services that transcend compliance and checklists.
  • Consider the impact of card-only transactions and apps on the digitally and financially excluded, some of whom may have limited data plans, want to avoid credit card fees, or not have access to banking facilities and credit/debit cards at all. The alternative to a replacement bus service was pretty expensive and not an option for many
  • Look at end-to-end services, then look further. Collaborate with others and connect data to make it seamless. Make sure interactions are informed by your users, assessing the experience from screens to the check-in hipsters
  • Communicate and reassure throughout a journey. If your announcement system is broken, have a backup, as not everyone would be lucky enough to be seated next to a staff member “in the know”. Have it in all required formats for those with visual or auditory impairments. Give people time and options in an unexpected situation (that train wasn’t going anywhere)
  • Avoid clutter and ads in apps. If someone is struggling with usability, the offer of learning how to trade £50k of virtual money is quite unwelcome
  • Be a bit more like Sweden

On the train home, I declined the opportunity to “watch, read, learn and play. For free” via the app. I was digitally transformed in an entirely unintended way. To end on a positive note, I think David can now see real potential in data-driven, customer-focused service design opportunities in the UK market. I expect he’ll be back, plus we’ll always have Broxbourne.