Archive for the 'travel' Category

Travel website usability by a travel writer

I’ve written before about how much airline websites annoy me for their lack of usability, but it turns out I’m not the only one: Check out this article by The Age travel writer Clive Dorman. He might not be talking about things in the same way as I have, but he is far more eloquent:

…[I ] had a dream about a super-fast airline website that performed each action so fast and seamlessly it was truly joyous (OK, so I’m part-nerd). I was truly disappointed this morning when I realised it was still a mental pie in the sky. (Read more)

Clearly Clive has experienced the same problems I and no doubt countless others have, and he is giving them voice in a large platform. The airlines need to listen to this kind of feedback; the first airline to get their website right is likely to gain some business even if they are a little more expensive than the alternatives.

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What’s not being considered in the MEL train debate: User experience

As a frequent traveller, I’ve noticed the long drawn out debate about whether Melbourne ought to have a train to the airport has heated up again this year, possibly as a result of Victoria’s transport minister Martin Pakula saying it isn’t a priority. I have to be honest, I have a vested interest in the outcome of all this. As an expat Kiwi living in Melbourne who travels home regularly and has experienced the best and the worst travelling to the airport has to offer, I’m firmly in the pro-train camp–but the reasons for this are more than just my personal best interest, as we shal explore below.

Those arguing for rail point out that it could bring signficant money to Melbourne, that Melbourne is growing (as is the congestion on the Tullamarine freeway), and that it is a necessary competition to the exhorbitant parking fees paid by those who drive to the airport (this last from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Those arguing against a train claim it is not needed and likely to be uneconomic, based on experiences in Sydney and Brisbane, and that a travel time of 40 minutes each way to the airport during peak time is acceptable.

At present there are three main options for getting to and from the Melbourne Airport:

All of the currently available options have significant negatives for all users: those in Melbourne on business can expect to lose nearly two hours of their day travelling between the CBD and the airport; disabled travellers may have trouble getting to and from the airport at all; the first and last thing tourists see of Melbourne is either the SkyBus or a taxi, both of whch travel on the congested Tullamarine Freeway; and regular travellers face the choice between the possibility of a long wait at the airport if they allow sufficient time for traffic or (and I speak from experience here) cutting it hair-raisingly close to missing an international flight. Things are sufficiently bad that it makes sense to have a rail link simply on the basis of the improved experience of those who need to get to and from the airport–and if the planners that be get it right, the improved user experience will also make a train make economic sense.

Usability means sustainability: a note on world usability day

Today is world usability day, and the theme this year is sustainability.  I can undertsand if that might seem like a bizarre combination, or if it might appear that world usability day has jumped on some kind of bandwagon.  I don’t think the two are wildly unrelated, and I think it is timely that world usability day recognises the relationship.  The relationship comes into play in a number of ways, from better designed living spaces and cities down to feedback to technology users about their real impact, but today I want to focus on two issues: efficiency, and computer supported co-operative work.

Efficiency is, in my opinion, a really big way better usability can contribute to improved sustainability.  Consider that Ben Shneiderman found out 8 years ago that the average person spends 5.1 hours per week grappling with computer problems.  If even 25% of those people would otherwise spend those 5.1 hours doing something that didn’t require electricity, that is a huge environmental saving.  Consider also the case of Lufthansa flight 2904 where cockpit usability problems constributed the death of two people, and the scrapping of an aircraft or the Therac 25 usability problems which caused the death of two people and necessitated considerable medical treatment for two others; both of these cases highlight social, financial and environmental sustainability problems that might have been avoided with better usability.  More mundanely, consider workplace injuries caused by poor ergonomic design, or the tim you spend looking up help files: each of these is a loss in efficiency due to poor system design and lack of usability testing. Every loss in efficiency we suffer due to poor system design or technological troubles is a way that usability (measuring how real people interact wit that system)  might have produced a more sustainable product or system.

Computer Supported Co-operative Work is another area for significant growth in sustainability.  This research field has a rich hsitory of contributing to the ways in which we work, and promotes some real sustainability gains.  CSCW has been the genesis of ideas that allow us to travel less (because we can collaborate online–there are some things for which you have to be there in person, but meetins are no longer one of them), print less (because we can share and review documents online) and share ideas more readily (because electronic dissemination is so lightweight). In their own ways, each of these advantages of sharing an electronic workspace contributes to sustainability (particularly given that travel and paper are not incosiderable contributors to environmental problems) , and I have no doubt that CSCW will continue to provide stepping stones to sustanability gains in the future.

I could talk about any number of other ways that usability helps create a more sustainable world, but I need to get off this computer and go and do something requiring no electricity.  In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend this post on ways you can check the usability of behaving sustanably in your area.  What are the barriers you face in living sustainably that could be improved with better system design?

Connex: a great example of systemic failure to care

Tell me, if you wanted your automated train ticket machines cleared, would you choose 823 AM on Monday as a good time to do it?  Even if ticket clearing takes 13 minutes? Even if, during those 13 minutes, four trains stop that station according to your schedule, and in fact 6 actually stop because two are running late?  Even if it was a station where not many trains stop, because it is not a primary station? Even if there is no other way for your passengers to buy tickets, unless they have enough coins (tickets start at $3.70)? Even if you regularly ended up with 10+ people waiting behind you?

No, neither would I, and yet between them, this is what Connex and Armorguard think is a good idea.  There is actually plenty of scope to clear the ticket machines at that station where not one single train stops there, even during weekdays.  I’ve written about Connex before because of their poor approach to user experience, and while they have often given me cause to do it again, I didn’t want this to be the “I hate Connex” blog, so I’ve left it alone. This particular example, though, was a  perfect demonstration of how little Connex cares about its’ customers’ user experience, particularly when you factor in the Connex guards who were present to prevent the “fare evasion” not being physically able to buy a ticket during peak hour might normally cause.

It comes as no surprise that Connex have lost their contract for the Melbourne metro train system, and while it is likely true that the State government needs to come to the party if services are genuinely to be improved, I won’t miss the callous disregard Connex shows for its customers, nor their pre-recorded message apologising “for any inconvenience caused”. There are things the new operator can do, even without government support, that will show that they are interested in their users’ experience of their system, and this more than anything will make a difference to that experience.

When things go wrong, communicate

In three separate instances recently, I have been frustrated by poor communication on the part of service industries I deal with.

In the first instance I was drastically affected by an airline schedule change, and it was not made at all clear to me what my options were–and when I worked it out and tried to to take advantage of the best option for me, the airline tried to charge me for it, claiming I had “already agreed to the schedule change”.  To be fair, I did eventually get what I needed with no additional fees to pay, and I was thrilled, but it seems a bit sad to be thrilled by an airline doing the right thing.

In the second, I found out that my favourite class was being cancelled at my local recreation centre from feedback they posted publically to another class, saying they would be moving that class into the room we had previously occupied.

In the third case, I was phoned the day before a booked appointment to say that I would not be able to keep my appointment (and offered two less convenient times as alternatives) because the professional I was to see was “not in”.  When I pressed to try and see the person with whom I had an existing relationship, I was told they had left the business.  This from a business that would charge me a 50% cancellation fee if I were to cancel within 24 hours of an appointment.

In all three of these cases, the disappointing thing that happened was inevitable, and I am not blaming the companies concerned for what happened.  What I am blaming them for, and what really made me angry, was their inability to communicate with me properly and in a timely fashion about the issues which affected me, and the paucity of alternatives I was offered (at least in the first and third cases).

Things go wrong in life, particularly in those industries where a product and a service are sold together.  In most cases users will be pretty forgiving if they understand what has gone wrong, and you communicate with them and explain what their options are from the outset.  In the instances where something goes wrong, communication is the key to keeping a user as happy as it is humanly possible to do, and keeping them using your service rather than anyone else’s.

Has anyone else had an experience where communication made the difference between grudging satisfaction and outright annoyance?

One of these things is not like the others: Livingsocial’s recommender services

Last year I did an experiment: I logged every book I read, complete with tags about timing, subject matter, fiction or non-, andf themes, in Google books.  This was inherently satisfying to my curiosity (63 books last year, 24 of whiuch were non fiction), but was lacking something I’m interested in: a recommendation feature.

During the year, I discovered I could also log my books in Facebook, in a service that does have a recommender feature based on ratings (but no tags, sadly–I know, I should have just used librarything in the first damn place).  Thus I entered the exciting world of LivingSocial, which accepts ratings for books, albums, movies…and restaurants.

While I haven’t bothered too much with the music recommender service (though I should try, since my taste is all over the place), but I have found the book service and the movie service to be quite exciting–I’ve seen lots of books and movies I want to read/see.  So when I noticed last night that they also had a restaurant section, I was cautiously excited: I love food and I am always looking for places to try, but I suspected that it might be a US-only service.  It’s not, but I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, mostly because it doesn’t take into account the differences between books/movies/albums and restaurants:

  • Availability of large, relatively comprehensive catalogues: There are a wide range of relatively-comprehensive online catalogues for books and movies–think Amazon or LibraryThing. The same is not true for restaurants: there may be listings in the local yellow pages for some towns, some of which may be available online, but these listings would be difficult to harvest and far from comprehensive.  As a response to this, Livcingsocial will actually allow you to add your own restaurant listings, but only after you have rated 20 restaurants.  If you don’t do a lot of travelling, and your city doesn’t have any restaurants listed, this could be a bit difficult.
  • Location dependence: Subject to availability, playing equipment and local censorship laws, books/movies/albums may be enjoyed anywhere.  Restaurants, however, are only really available to those living or travelling (let’s be generous) within say 100 km (60 mi) of the restaurant’s physical location.
  • Amount of information required to make a decision: Everyone has certain requirements of their entertainment, for example:  some people find swearing offensive, some people dislike science fiction intensely, some people cannot abide restaurants that won’t take bookings, some people are vegetarian.  Recommendations for books/movies/music are more likely to meet people’s requirements (going back to our example those who dislike science fiction will universally rate it lower, thus feeding each other’s recommendations) and even if they don’t, it is much easier to find out ahead of time that they are bad (in the example of swearing parental advisory stickers are a good clue). In the case of restaurants, however, there are more paramters in play (food, service, noise level, ambiance, wheelchair accessibility, child-frioendliness, diaetary requirements) and this type of thing is harder to tease out in a five point rating, and often harder to discover before making the time investment to actually go to the restaurant.

The restaurant recommender is based on the same principles as the other recommenders, the amazon style “people who liked x also liked y, and you like x so you will probably like y”.  My experience with it, however, was quite frustrating: I rated a significant number of restaurants (not without some difficulty, as there aren’t that may listed in Melbourne, so I had to go to other cities I had lived in), and then clicked on “recommendations”.  Most of the recommendations were for restaurants in the US, and there was no way to generate recommendations for a a specified geographic region.  If I were travelling to the US any time soon, this might be helpful if I were going to the specific cities where restaurants were recommended for me, but generally speaking, these recommendations are useless.

The problem here is that a model that works well for small physical items has been applied to experiences, and it simply doesn’t work–making the user experience clunky and ultimately frustrating, possibly more often than it is helpful.  LivignSocial would have been better to stick with wine!

Have you ever tried a product or service from a company that did other things well only to be disappointed?

One good thing in travel: Online check in

I’ve been travelling again (hence my sustained absence from this blog), and of course, as always happens when one travels in the cooler seasons, I picked up someone’s cold. This time, I want to talk about a good experience I had with my travels: Air New Zealand domestic services online check in.

As regular readers will know, I hate standing in line at airports with a vengeance, probably because I have (from my perspective) wasted an inordinate amount of time standing in them. I know some readers will see online check in as a reduction in the level of service that airlines offer, but given that I can still check in in person if I want to (actually highly unlikely in my case), I don’t see it this way. The online check in is great just by being available, but it is also (apart from a couple of little niggles) very usable.

My big niggle with the online check in for Air New Zealand is that to do it you need the arbitrary booking reference they assign you. Given that I have an Air New Zealand airpoints login, it would be much better if I could log in with my (equally arbitrary but at least constant) airpoints number, it would be nice if I could just log in, select the flight from a list of my bookings, and check in.

Apart from that, though, once you’re logged in it is very easy to manage — you select your seat from a visual map, and you click ‘check in’, and you’re done. Air New Zealand emails you a PDF of your boarding card, which you print out, and take with you to the airport. You drop your bags in a baggage drop line (which moves much faster than a proper check in line), and go to your gate.

There are two aspects of this system that make it better for some users: Time and control. The time thing means that the user gets to choose when the time taken to check in is spent — whether they want to wait at the airport for 45 minutes prior to their flight, or whether they want to check in at home and arrive later. The control issue is the important one, though; this system puts seat selection into the hands of the user. You can’t select an exit row seat ahead of time (there are certain restrictions on who can sit in these), but any other preference on the plane is available to you. This is a vast improvement over standing in front of a check in agent begging for the aisle seat you know they’re saving for a frequent flyer with a higher tier than you.

Air New Zealand isn’t the only airline doing this; I know that Qantas and Emirates both do it as well (and Emirates has it for international flights if their appalling website doesn’t time out), but Air New Zealand is the only one I have experienced recently. What are your experiences with online check in?


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