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On a recent trip out of Victoria Station in the morning rush hour to visit a client, I nearly forgot that my Oyster card doesn’t take me further than the end of the zone map. No bother I thought, I’ll buy a ticket instead. I then proceeded with one of my most frustrating transactions and user experiences of recent memory.

Rail stations generally have replaced most ticket booths with automated touch-screen systems. Whilst being a familiar technology (I have an iPhone), I discovered that the basic implementation of it can have a profound impact on the user experience and should be thought of more carefully when being designed, and there are 3 distinct areas in both the design and maintenance that need to be managed:

1. Touchscreens should work when you touch them, every time.

I proceeded to the ticket machines where I had to queue since it was a busy period. Arriving at a machine I attempted to select the type of ticket I needed. The machine failed to respond at all. I stood there for a minute or more, jabbing and tapping at the screen but to no avail.

Feeling a mix of frustration and embarrassment because I couldn’t work out how to use it, I again queued for the next available machine. I fared little better with this one and began to wonder whether all machines were inoperable – except that some people seemed to be having tickets printed from theirs. A quick glance at the huge queue in the understaffed ticket office persuaded me to continue trying to obtain a ticket via machine. The clock was ticking and my train was due to leave imminently, only adding to the tension I felt.

2. Screens should be clean enough to read them properly

I tried again with another machine, which upon arrival had an additional issue. The screen was smeary, and I imagine it hadn’t been cleaned since it was installed meaning some of the information it displayed was rather difficult to read. I did wonder whether the level of dirt was attributed somehow to my inability to get any of them to work. I doubted it, but by this point I was grasping at straws. I wondered momentarily whether an explanation for my predicament would be a suitable defence for fare evasion.

3. One size doesn’t fit all

So, I crouched down to get a closer look at the screen so I could read the selection buttons for my journey. And then I made an astounding discovery: with my nose less than a few centimetres from the screen, I was able to operate it successfully. Why? Because all the ticket machines had been set at a fixed height and angle which, I presume, is determined as being accessible to everyone. But if you are over 6 foot tall, what might appear to be the correct area of the screen to press from high above actually isn’t, due to the positioning of the screen.

This was a truly ‘eureka’ moment, and one I would never have worked out if I’d possessed a pack of screen wipes. I later recalled that similar machines at Paddington Station, with which I am more familiar, are positioned much higher up (and presumably, therefore, impossible for shorter people or wheelchair users to operate).

Can you design for a standard user?

On reflection, it underlines the fact there is no such thing as a “standard user”. We are all unique, have differing and in some cases conflicting needs. Forcing customers to use automated technology which assumes everyone is the same is unlikely to provide anything other than a frustrating and ignorant customer experience.

What do you think? Have you had any great or bad customer experiences with the ‘standardisation’ of interfaces? Let us know in the comments below!


  • Steve Fenton says

    I have the same problem with cash-points, which are getting lower and lower. I can’t actually read them without bending right over.

    13 February 2012 at 10:20 am

  • George Maninis says

    Well, you raise some physical ergonomics issues here and talking from the designer’s perspective, those issues will not go away very soon.

    Some possible solutions to those problems are:

    - Make the machine adjustable. Imagine a screen which can be adjusted according to the customer’s height… Unfortunately, it will be broken in a week or if you want to make a sustainable one, then the cost might be unacceptable.

    - Exploit the power of other devices to accomplish your task, e.g. your smartphone. This seems more promising.

    It’s all about design compromises and compliance with accessibility guidelines.

    4 March 2012 at 12:25 pm

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