diamond geezer

 Monday, December 16, 2013

No doubt, like me, you are simultaneously totally excited and nervous as hell about the imminent upgrade of the TfL website. What wonderful additional functionality will the new site have? What current very-useful stuff will they take away? Whichever, the design team are taking their time, releasing only occasional updates in a very sporadic way. A beta version was launched six months ago, capable of planning a journey and not much more. A few additional information pages have since been added in the background without great fanfare. Last month an innovative 'Roads status' section went live, dividing the capital up into a dozen or so radial corridors and allowing drivers to keep track of any disruption. It looks good. Then last week the TfL Digital blog sprung into action again, announcing two further location-based tweaks...
Nearby is a completely new tool which places you on a map and shows you all the Tube, bus, river, Overground, DLR, National Rail and Cycle Hire locations around you.
• The other new addition sits under the Live Departures button on the homepage, and it allows you to get to information about any station, stop or pier, interacting with a map or with objects on the page to get live arrivals, departures and status. You can also plan journeys and see station facilities information.
The Nearby function is accessed via a single small button on the homepage. Click that, then either pick where you are right now, or some other place in London, and the beta TfL website will tell you what transport options are nearby. If you want to use "current location" you may need to tweak your browser settings, or click on a pop-up button to "always share", but then the magic robots get to work and pinpoint precisely where you are. Up comes a map with a blue dot in spookily the right place, surrounded by red dots for bus stops, light blue dots for cycle hire and whopping great labels for stations. The labels are a bit annoying sometimes because they block the map underneath, but you can always zoom in. If you do zoom in then the red dots autofill with the letter of the bus stop, and a tiny arrow points to where the bus stop is (or almost where it is, because they're not all wholly accurate).

Alternatively, if maps aren't your thing, a big list also appears giving all the transport access points in text-based form. Names of bus stops, names of stations, that sort of thing, hopefully showing you enough detail regarding services and destinations to work out which one's which. The list stops after about ten options, but you can always click through onto pages 2, 3 or 4, or go back and click on the map if that proves easier. If there's a cycle hire docking station nearby you'll even see precisely how many bikes are available and how many spaces there are, in real time, a nice touch.

Once you've found your stop or station, you can then access the second new feature - Live Departures. Let's assume, for sake of argument, that you've clicked on Bank station, like so. There are then three options, beneath the map, offering Tube or Bus or DLR. Click Tube and you jump to Bank station's bespoke page. Click again and you can choose between three tube lines, so let's pick the Central line. There you go, the next three live departures in each direction, with the option of clicking again to see a greater number. After about three minutes you'll get the warning message "This departure information is out of date. Please try reloading the page" which is a bit annoying, because you'd hope something like this could auto refresh, or partially refresh, without you having to manually reload the whole page.

Scroll further down and additional information is provided, such as ticket office opening times (at least for now, before they're all scrapped). A separate section lists "Accessibility information", or rather it completely cops out by directing you to a completely different website. Worse, it directs you to the front page of that website without taking you to the unique page, leaving you to search for that yourself. The off-site information is brilliant, as this utterly detailed example for Bank/Monument shows. Surely it shouldn't be hard for TfL's Agile Programming Team to link each of London's 500 or so stations to the correct page of access information, but seemingly nobody's thought of doing that yet. There again, this is the same team who've written "please complete the online form to make an enquirey about lost property", so perhaps they have more urgent proofing to do first.

Bank's DLR page hasn't quite got things sorted either. The station has one platform for DLR arrivals and another for DLR departures, but http://beta.tfl.gov.uk insists on showing both, with the platform you can't catch trains from listed first. This is what happens when you get a database, not a human, to decide what information to display.

As for bus stops near Bank, let's assume you want stop 'K' on Poultry. Ooh that's nice, they've used little square plates to depict the routes available, that's 8, 25 and 242. Each of these routes currently has "disruptions reported", but you have to click to see what they are, which jumps you to a completely different page, where you have to click again for details. Mostly irrelevant details, as it turns out. To return to your original query you then have to click back, but this jumps back too far, meaning you're forced to select your bus stop again. This is not efficient design. And then, after all that, "There are no live departures currently available". I've tried the beta site at several different stops and I always get this message, or an obviously depleted list of departures, so there's nothing useful to see here yet.

All of the above I've based on accessing http://beta.tfl.gov.uk on a laptop. But the beta website has actually been "built with mobile in mind", and it shows. Everything's been designed in portrait format like a smartphone screen, not in landscape format like a laptop screen, where a lot of the content falls unnecessarily off the bottom. Mobile users are used to scrolling down, laptop users less so, which gets a little tiresome when you can no longer see everything in one go. Plus it feels like the beta website has been optimised for anyone with a touchscreen, with lots of oversize text to click on, so there's a lot of empty white space us mouse-clickers don't need. This is because TfL want those out and about to be able to plan journeys optimally, which makes total sense, but I'm not enjoying the experience so much when sat at home.

And actually it's not so easy to use on a smartphone, because there are so many steps to click through and it's easy to hit the wrong thing. Let's go back to Bank station and imagine I'm standing outside trying to find the next three Central line departures. I fire up http://beta.tfl.gov.uk, I click 'Nearby', then I choose 'Current location'. A map appears immediately underneath the search box, which it's important not to touch unless you want it, otherwise it swamps the screen. For my next click I have to choose Bank station, then I scroll down and click again on 'Tube'. This loads a new page which whips me up to the top of the screen so I have to swipe back down to negotiate past the map again. And for my fifth and final click I choose 'Central', which again loads another new page, and again I have to scroll back down. I could almost be on that first train by now.

It's all very clever, but not quite clever enough to deliver a smooth, fast, optimal dose of information. On my laptop, I still prefer the existing departure boards page, for clarity, refreshability and ease of use. Meanwhile mobile users are probably still better off with an app rather than a website. Something like the excellent Citymapper for journey planning, and the award-winning Stationmaster for step-free information.

But remember that http://beta.tfl.gov.uk is still evolving, and the final version won't be released until some undisclosed time in the new year. There's still time for the design team to tweak the code, and improve the interface, and enhance the functionality, and you can help. Have a play, see what you think, and send your feedback via the tab in the top right hand corner of their website. Whatever you do don't waste your time moaning in my comments box, because you don't think TfL actually read this stuff, do you?

Wednesday update: I take it back, TfL are indeed reading this stuff. Blimey, and thanks Rodrigo.

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