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March 25 2014
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Graham

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If your customers need help to understand; you should probably redesign to help

The complexity and frustrations of train tickets

As a very frequent business traveler I’ve often wondered how I can fly long-haul with an e-ticket, but to travel by a train requires a stack of tickets. It doesn’t seem possible to buy ‘a return train ticket’ on a single piece of card? About two dozen cards are needed when you travel with a small group of people for the day – that’s half a pack! It does make you question what train organisations could do to improve their ticketing systems and customer experience.

The ticketing system
I recently collected such a handful of train tickets on behalf of a party of 3 and made haste to the ticket barrier. We hadn’t time to study our hand and pick the winning cards to get us through, so I just fanned the cards and invited the ticket collector to “pick a card, any card”, and thankfully he saw the irony and waived us on.

Once on the train, a game of patience was needed. With a suitable table (not ours for we’d yet to figure that out) we laid out all the cards and compiled 3 compatible sets for 4 trains.

If there was an individual within the ‘train organisation’ to ask ‘why can’t a journey be described on a single card’ I’m sure a rational explanation would follow, with references to ‘systems, networks, tariffs, standards, cross-charge, audit trail’ etc. After all, no-one responsible would ever intend the current ticketing complexity to be irrational, and from their perspective it can’t be. It’s only irrational when viewed from another perspective – such as the customers’.

Train organisations are large enough to create complex ticketing systems and then live with them on a daily basis to become culturally enveloped. Once staff and management are trained on a self-imposed learning curve to overcome the complexity, they’ve no need or motive to change. Once trained, empathy with their ‘untrained’ customers is less easy, it’s difficult to imagine something simpler and more convenient if you don’t need to. It is the customers with their fresh and innocent eyes that are left to do that.

Call a ticket a ‘Ticket’
As such a customer I notice a few oddities that could be changed to improve my experience: Why is a Ticket entitled ‘VALID ONLY WITH RESERVATION(S)’ at the top when it could be entitled ‘TICKET’?  Conversely, why is a Seat Reservation entitled ‘VALID ONLY WITH TICKET’ when it could be…………if I’m right about this you can guess.

Furthermore, why is a Seat Reservation even separate? I don’t expect this when I book a plane, theatre, restaurant, taxi or dentist? If a seat is available it only takes 3-9 extra digits to describe, so why do I want another card with over 200 more digits to camouflage the useful ones to me?

Complexity of the ticket type is rarely the outcome of any deliberate vision or design intention, it’s generally the consequence of a lack of it. If organisations don’t make deliberate efforts to simplify, then entropy – the passage of time and its human agents of change will conspire to make systems incrementally more complex to solve every emerging need. To cope with the eventual complexity, organisations then build layers of customer support, helplines and the ubiquitous ‘FAQs’ so that the untrained can cope with the unfathomable.

Complex technology can simplify experience
A better solution would be to try to restore product and service simplicity from first principles.

The irony is that it is the application of complex technology that can help create the perception of simplicity by being ‘smart’, ‘expert’ and even ‘fuzzy’! Visionary design, driven from the user perspective, combined with smart technology can humanize the complexity and create a simpler, more user-friendly ticketing system for all.

Instead of queuing and juggling glasses, phone, wallet and briefcase to operate a keyboard hell-bent on checking my reaction times before dispensing a jackpot of playing cards, perhaps I can arrive at a ‘friendly’ barrier with just my smartphone, having booked online with a voice-enabled app, and be served one smart ticket as I glide through.

I confess I am unaware of the intricacies of transport management and am sure to be confused by an explanation of the constraints. The validity of my view lies solely in the fact that I am an untrained customer, a member of the similarly untrained customer population that companies (transport or otherwise) need to serve well to win their hearts, minds and business.

Serving the customer better might mean undercutting complexity to provide them with an experience that is simply ‘simple’- and without the need for extra help.

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Posted by Graham
Technical Director

Languages spoken: English (technical for the non-technical).
The last thing that inspired me: Ben Ainslie’s achievements and even greater aspirations.
My dream project: Sleep!
My obsession: Talking-the-walk, then working-the-torque.

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