The state of the London Underground and the importance of usability testing.

I am lost. Hopelessly lost, with little prospect of getting home. And i’ll tell you why. It’s because London Underground don’t know the importance of usability and testing.

People who travel regularly with this blog will know that I try to avoid being critical, but once in a while, something comes up where you just can’t avoid it. And in this case, it’s the London Underground App on the iPhone. Somewhere here there is a valuable lesson about user experience testing.

Those of you who don’t live in the UK may have heard that London is the glittering cultural crown of England’s green and pleasant lands, and you’d be right, if you ever got to see it, because it’s also blighted by the most unimaginably complex transport system, famous for being represented by a map that is deliberately abstract, as abstraction is the only way to make it coherent.

My challenge was to get from Waterloo to Kings Cross. Again, for non UK readers, please insert two relevant stations that are, essentially, not far apart and should be easy to travel between.

Now the glittering new iPhone App allows you to plan your journey. You enter your starting point. You enter your destination. It tells you which line to get on and where to change, along with a comical estimate of your journey time. I realise that a historical note is important. The Underground was never actually ‘designed’, rather it was spawned by a small group of Victorian gentlemen with large moustaches and ambition. Lines were dug pretty much wherever the loam was deep enough to allow it, and hence today our rather convoluted system, which is more useful as a decoration for tourist tea towels than actual travel.

Still, i was optimistic. I typed in ‘Wa’ and it found ‘Waterloo’. I typed in ‘Ki’ and it had nothing. ‘Kings’, nothing. ‘Kings Cross’, nothing.

Now, Kings Cross is not a small station. Bearing in mind that, by their own admission, over a billion people use the tube each year, i’m willing to bet that more than a few of them go to Kings Cross. Anyone who wants to go to the North of England for a start. I’m not sure how many stations there are on the underground and, to be honest, i can’t be bothered to Google it, because, whatever the actual figure, i can assure you that it’s not that large.

But wait… there’s another legacy from our Victorian forebears that i’d forgotten about. Kings Cross is actually next to St Pancras. Yes, instead of one, useful station, we have two, right next to each other (from memory, about three minutes walk from a third, Euston, as well). Ah ha, maybe this was the answer, but, no. ‘St’ returned no results.

However, ‘Pan’ immediately bought up ‘Kings Cross St Pancras’. Hang on. What type of indexing system does that? Clearly not one that i’m familiar with, but, yes, i was finally able to locate Kings Cross, which, just to be clear, is an entirely separate station from St Pancras (which, in another twist, is actually officially named London St Pancras International).

Armed with this new information, i was presented with a route. Depart from Waterloo on the Northern Line, arriving at Kings Cross St Pancras, 22 minutes later. This all sounded very promising.

Except that you can’t.

‘The Northern Line’ implies, indeed, actively indicates, that it’s a line that goes north, whilst in fact, it’s a type of big X shape, with four branches, that cover all points of the compass and, no matter how you try, you can’t go from Waterloo to Kings Cross. Or St Pancras.

You can, however, go to the aforementioned Euston and walk.

Now, believe it or not, there is a point to this. I know how much it cost to produce that App and, whilst discretion prevents me from disclosing it, let me just say that it was a very great deal of money indeed. Think of a figure. I can assure you, this App cost a lot more.

So why, in all of the development process, has nobody actually thought to test it?

Fundamental to any development process must be usability, to make something, anything, fit for purpose. This isn’t a detail, it’s central to the objects existence. Whilst we are willing to put up with a certain lack of accuracy or breakdown with some things, others should just be done properly. If you have a hugely expensive sports car, you expect to need to get it tuned very often. With a boiler, you service it once a year. With a Tube map, i expect it to be right (especially as this is the second release).

Getting the simple things, like the search function, right is just a hygiene factor. There are no excuses for getting it wrong these days. Some things should surely just be simple.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Testing, User Experience Testing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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