Part 2 in an occasional series about how digital products and services can learn from real world experiences

As designers and makers we all aspire to be able to grow and improve the things we create. Either because it’s part of the plan (a minimum viable product launch), or because since release you’ve discovered new user behaviours or requirements that need to be rolled in. Or it may be because technology and standards have changed around you. Unleashing a new release is what agilistas live for. But what happens if you can’t? What happens if you can’t improve upon your original product and make a second release?

This could be for any number of reasons – changing priorities, budgets drying up, teams moving on or the project’s sponsors having a ‘that’ll do’ attitude. Or maybe the world has shifted, and you’re stuck with a design, product or technology platform that simply can’t be updated easily without massive investment.

Ticket machine interface
A good example of this are the self-service ticket machines at railway stations. It’s difficult to imagine a more heinous crime against user experience than the machines across the National Express network. Instead of speeding up or simplifying the ticket buying process, they add complexity and hassle – what should be easy is made into a soul-destroying moment.

I don’t know why these machines haven’t been improved since they were installed years ago. For this blog post I’m going to assume it’s because technically they’re non-trivial to change and not because National Express simply revels in being cruel to it’s customers.

What makes the usability of these machines such an aberration is that since they were installed automated machines have become a part of our day-to-day lives. I may buy a train ticket once every couple of months, but I use a self-service machine at the supermarket a couple of times a week. Self-service machines are everywhere, from cinemas to car parks. And let’s not forget that we use touch screen devices virtually every hour of our lives, with world-class interfaces, through our smart phones.

These ticket machines simply haven’t been able to keep up. So, what can you do in a two speed world where standards are moving and yet you can’t? By looking at the areas you can control and the places where the price of change is managable. In National Express’s case, the online ticket buying experience and the station’s physical environment.

Let’s take one transaction as an example and see how this approach applies.

A common interaction with a railway ticket machine is to collect a ticket that you’ve purchased online. You get to the station, insert your credit card and bingo! you have your ticket. Simple.

Except, this isn’t how these machines work. You can’t collect your ticket unless you have a collection reference number as well. Crucially, this differs from my expectations. The expectation of only needing my credit card comes from purchasing cinema tickets online – the regularity at which I do this has trained my mind to not worry about booking numbers. Here’s the final page of the online booking process from National Express’s website:

National Express confirmation screen

Yes, if you look carefully, the page does mention that you need a collection number. But once again, my previous knowledge and behaviour sets a different expectation – who studies instructional copy these days? I’ve read it before for one website, do I really need to read it again? If the information is set in 12pt or under then surely it can’t be that important.

Imagine the panic that arises at the train station when you discover you need more information than you were expecting. Especially if it’s taken you a long time to get to the front of the queue as the machines are so time-consuming to use…

Thankfully, smart phone to the rescue and I find the booking confirmation email from National Express. The clock is ticking, and my expectation is that the most important information I need will be presented high up, so I enter the first number I see.

Booking confirmation email

“Hang on. There’s only space for 8 digits and this is 10. What the? I’ll try entering it again. It doesn’t work. What the bloody–”

At that point, a kind customer behind me said that he’d had exactly the same problem on a previous occasion. There are 2 numbers in the email: a booking reference number AND a collection reference number. I had been trying to enter the wrong number.

Collection number

Oh, what a fool I am. To think that my 16 digit credit card number isn’t enough to identify my purchase. No, National Express needs my credit card AND a 10 digit booking number AND an 8 digit alpha-numeric collection number too.

Crikey. Let’s hope the numbers don’t run out before the world runs out of customers.

It’s easy to rant about these things. But it offers an opportunity to look at how to handle a two speed world – a physical machine that can’t be updated and the more controllable touch points that surround it.

The first step is recognising the parts of your system or interface that can’t or won’t be changed. The second is seeing how the world is moving and then understanding how to balance the two. Specifically, the parts you do control need to compensate for the fixed parts you don’t.
New confirmation screen

For example, to get around the expectation that only a credit card is needed at the ticket machine, the online confirmation page could be changed to make this difference obvious. Rather than just using text, using an image of the physical environment goes further in signalling that the user needs to do something different.

Equally, considering how the user interacts with other devices that touch on your process is just as important. The booking confirmation email (with it’s collection number) is easy to understand on a large screen. However, when viewed on a mobile’s small screen, the difference between the two numbers is frustratingly lost. Appreciating the different relationship a user has with a small screen, especially in a time critical situation, would make a big difference.

Both of these are small suggestions, yet when the price of change is so high they may be the only movements you can make. It's not ideal but it is pragmatic. Until the price of losing customers overtakes the price of standing still…

At this point I wish I could say that the inspiration for this blog post was all down to me being a stupid user. Yet five of us were travelling up to Suffolk on the day I’ve based this post on. All of us bought tickets online. And all of us suffered the same problem at the ticket machine…