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One less frustration for British rail travelers

I travel frequently between London and Isotoma’s York offices. Every time, I’m forced to endure the frustrating mess that is A couple of months ago, when it had the temerity to run a customer survey, I vented:

The website has been a pain to use as long as it has existed, and the only reason you haven’t made any improvements is that customers are forced to use it in the absence of any real alternative. The moment that alternative comes along you won’t see me for dust.

Subsequently, The Trainline has rolled out some welcome usability improvements (not enough to call it a “new site” as they do in the interview on Econsultancy.) The homepage search form was greatly improved, and a clear, consistent accent colour on buttons and links helped a lot on other pages. Unfortunately, this is as far as it went, leaving their confusing, cumbersome, 12-screen journey unchanged.

The real alternative has finally arrived, in the form of National Express East Coast (note: not, designed by Flow Interactive. Here’s why:

The most important difference is best illustrated in the table and screenshot below. National Express has 8 steps in their booking journey, and Trainline, 12:

National Express The Trainline
1 Home Home
2 Journey selection 1. Journey details
3 Journey details 2. Times & Tickets
4 Delivery details 3. Seats
5 Payment details 4. Delivery
6 Review order 4. Delivery
7 Mastercard securecode Log in
8 Confirmation 4. Delivery
9 5. Payment
10 5. Payment
11 Mastercard securecode
12 Confirmation

Now, fewer screens does not necessarily imply a better user experience. If screens are very nationalexpress-trainline-summarylong, or very complicated, it may well be as bad or worse. Nevertheless, online purchase journeys are notorious for trying the patience, and fewer steps is a worthwhile goal. Note how The Trainline pretends to have 5 numbered steps, only for some of them to last several screens — confusing and disheartening for the user. On National Express every labeled step is one screen only, and those screens aren’t much longer than the Trainline’s either (average 996 pixels compared with Trainline’s 815.)

This stuff isn’t easy, and I’m speaking from experience. When I designed the First Choice Holidays booking journey in 2006, the default user journey I ended up with had 8 screens. When I designed Eurostar’s in 2005, it also had 8 screens, or 10 if travelers were flexible with their dates. National Express shares a design feature with First Choice, which is a persistent order summary in the right-hand column throughout the booking journey.

It’s difficult to shorten the journey without adding complexity. National Express uses dynamic interactivity on nearly every step to update the screen depending on your choices, in a very intuitive way. The most complicated screen, the Journey Selection, takes some getting used to, but that said, it’s no more confusing than the Trainline’s Times & Tickets screen (radio buttons in a table.) In fact, it’s rather ingenious and could merit an article on its own. Another thing that they do right is to ensure that all the default choices are clearly signposted, and less frequently-used options are more subtle (but still in the right places.)

When I mentioned dynamic interactivity, some readers may immediately worry about the impact on accessibility. National Express has taken the most drastic approach to meet their obligations, which is to provide an alternative booking journey. This can potentially double the design and development effort, and I don’t normally recommend this approach, but in this case (having tested the text-only journey) I think they’ve done the right thing.

Commuter travel is exactly where creating an account can potentially save a lot of time when booking. But the Trainline fluffed this too. Every time there is a login step. There is no way to save favourite journeys, and I have to enter my credit card details every time as well. National Express gets it right. The logged-in journey goes through the same number of steps, but if you’re using a saved journey, there is little you need to do on each. And the site recognises me by cookie.

But ultimately, usability is cumulative — and the National Express site is full of those thoughtful little details that add up to a good experience, while the Trainline feels like death by a hundred pinpricks — e.g. when you click Back to return to the homepage, and it forgets the search values you’ve entered. One of many nice touches on National Express is how the Buy Now button is deactivated until you check the T&Cs box, avoiding a validation error.
To top it all off, National Express costs £3.50 less, charging neither a £1 booking fee nor a £2.50 credit card fee like the Trainline. And it even lets you calculate your carbon emissions.