Usability Testing a Train Station
By Rose Matthews, Senior Customer Experience Consultant
July 1st | 2011 By
You may, or may not, know that I live in a Welsh city famed for comedy chav hip-hop, British heritage and the Ryder Cup – an eclectic mix that I’m proud to be part of. If you’re not familiar with it (looking at you YANKS!), below is video to help put things in perspective.
Last year, Network Rail teamed up with Newport City Council and the Welsh Assembly Government to build a new £22 million railway station that would give visitors the impression of arriving at an exciting, up-and-coming metropolitan deserving of an international reputation.
They unveiled their prize in October 2010 and it looks like this:
Wow! That’s £22 million very well spent – it looks like aliens have landed and brought the future with them! It’s got a ‘bubblewrap’ roof that uses the same technology as the Eden Project! Corr!
Let’s forget for a minute the fact that the roof has leaked constantly since opening, that it still leads to the same old dodgy platforms and that it’s a full 200 yards further away from my house. These things aren’t important.
What is important is the experience that you go through from arriving at this station until leaving it. Has this been designed for the people? Is catching your train a smooth action, in which you are led seamlessly on from point to point?
Let’s find out.
We’ll start with a simple mental model for a persona likely to frequent the station. I’m going to focus for now on those who are in Newport and want to leave (it’s going to take some imagination), in this case a commuter who works in nearby Cardiff:
To meet the requirements of our commuter, we will need to provide:
So it’s fairly simple now to design a station that contains all these things, allowing our commuter to move easily from one to the next without having to cross his own path or those of others. So how does Newport’s new railway station stack up? Let’s take a look at its layout:
Okay, so how does it stack up?
Well, issue number one has to be the clock. There’s no clock anywhere in the terminal building. It isn’t above the ticket office, it isn’t hanging on a wall – it’s not even included in the train arrival display. There is no clock this side of the ticket barriers. So, straight away, our commuter is unable to make use of the train arrival times because, without knowing the current time, he can’t calculate how long he’s got until the train leaves. The next train to Cardiff might be at the platform right now, its doors slamming and the whistles blowing, and he has no way of knowing.
Incidentally, I happened to bump into a man in a suit who appeared to be involved with Network Rail and he asked the attendant why there was no clock. The attendant answered, “Everyone has a watch, or at least a mobile phone”. True point, but how accurate is our commuter’s timekeeping device? Does he have faith in it being perfectly synchronised with Network Rail’s? And does he want to root around his pockets looking for it when he first arrives at the station? I suspect not.
Next comes the ticketing which is actually very well catered for. It is easy to find the ticket windows and machines, and our commuter can step straight from the doors into a queue. Very neat.
However, this is where we fall into trouble again because, now that our commuter has his ticket, he wants to keep moving through the barriers and off to the platform. But which platform is it? He still doesn’t know the time – will he make it to the next Cardiff train which is on Platform 1, or should he start climbing the stairs to Platform 2? He has no help at all – the ‘train information’ on Platform 1 is too far away to see, and the first available clock is all the way up the stairs. Our commuter has to take a gamble and dash over the bridge to Platform 2.
Our commuter arrives on Platform 2 and realises he has a few minutes to spare. Perfect! Perhaps, a nice cup of coffee and something to read on the way to work? Err – no. Not unless you’re willing to take a five minute march down one platform to the obscure coffee shop hidden at the end, followed by a good ten minute trek back up the platform, up the stairs, over the bridge and across to the opposite end of Platform 1. And let’s face it – nobody has that sort of time in the morning. So instead he crosses his arms, leans against a wall and waits grumpily for the train.
So there we have it… there’s a lot of good to say about Newport railway station. It is very modern-looking. It does have a large, wide bridge that’s never crowded and it does have two entry buildings right next to purpose-built car parks. But it will never give people the great experience that it should, and that’s a shame because it really doesn’t need to change very much.
Just shows you – a little bit of usability testing in your design project can make all the difference!