diamond geezer

 Wednesday, March 26, 2014

So, the TfL website has updated. A beta website had been running in parallel for the last nine months, giving the Online Team a chance to fine tune all aspects of the final design before it went live. So when the big button was pressed and the new site replaced the old, were people pleased with the result? Well yes. And no.

The old site wasn't great on mobiles, so the new has been built very much with smartphones and tablets in mind. It has much increased functionality, with all sorts of clever touchscreen features and location-based interactivity. But not everything is better, indeed some previously simple things are more complicated, and certain useful information appears to have disappeared completely. In particular text is larger and more spaced out, meaning not so much appears on screen in one go, and pages are optimised to run down rather than across, meaning a lot more scrolling is required.

Let's take a look at the new site, starting with the home page.



How much you see on the homepage depends very much on what kind of device you're viewing on. On a smartphone no menu appears until you press the screen, whereas on a laptop options for [Plan a journey], [Status updates], [Maps], [Fares & Payments] and [More] are always visible. The [Plan a Journey] option seems slightly pointless on the homepage given that a box for planning a journey appears immediately underneath, plus it's an unnecessary trap. If you should make the mistake of going to the [Plan a Journey] page you get exactly the same planning box but with a massive advert for British Airways slapped across the back. I know TfL have to advertise to save costs, but this advert is so big I've accidentally clicked on it several times while trying to manoeuvre around the page and ended up being sucked into a journey to New York instead. Top tip - when planning a journey don't go to the [Plan a Journey] page, go to the ad-lite homepage instead (by clicking on the roundel top left). [Thursday update: I take it back, the homepage is often as ad-infested as the Journey Planner, sigh]

[Plan a Journey] has this priority position on the homepage because it's what most users want. Indeed TfL did lots of research before starting their design, and discovered that about half of the visitors to their previous site wanted the Journey Planner. So here it is, up front. It's probably not the page you use most, but then you, dear reader, aren't most people. You probably know London fairly well, and already have a good idea how you'd get from Paddington to Oxford Circus or Wimbledon to Bank. Johnny Public however hasn't internalised the tube diagram, nor developed a mental map of inner London and roughly where key buses run. Johnny Public doesn't want to flick through timetables and maps, he just wants the reassurance of a service that can dish up a route which he can passively follow. Johnny Public is very happy today, because he has an upfront Journey Planner on his smartphone and he may never need to think again.

Below [Plan a Journey] come three icons for [Live departures], [Maps] and [Nearby], which are potentially very useful options. [Live departures] provides a link to the stations, stops and piers of your choice, eventually. It's generally quicker to use the [Search] box than to click through the volley of menus that follow. Using smartphone menus to find trains from Neasden station, for example, requires clicking on [Tube, DLR and Overground], scrolling down to [Jubilee], clicking on [Jubilee], scrolling down again to [Neasden] (the list is in alphabetical rather than geographical order), then scrolling down yet again to view the next three departures. Rather usefully the departures update minute by minute, in real time, just as if you were standing on the platform. Sometimes you click all the way through the end to discover "We are unable to show live departures at the moment. Please use Timetables to check the frequency of your service" except that nobody has yet thought to provide a click-through link to [Timetables] because that might be too useful.

I'll perhaps come back to [Maps] tomorrow. But [Nearby] is a great innovation... or at least should be. Land here and TfL's website will ask permission to share your location. It keeps asking me this, even though I've given it permission more than twenty times, but maybe that's something to do with my browser set-up. With pinpoint accuracy the website will then home in on the nearest TfL departure points to your location, which where I live include bus stops, stations and cycle hire terminals. You'll probably need a map to make sense of which bus stop is which, something that's much easier to view on a laptop than on a mobile. Top tip: if there's a bus stop or station near you that you use regularly, favourite it and then it'll appear much earlier in your search on future occasions. The system's not perfect, though. Three of the five bus stops closest to my house don't appear anywhere in the [Nearby] list, only on the map, so presumably something isn't quite bedded in right.

And then on the homepage comes the feature that I use most - Line status updates. I check this first thing in the morning to see if I'll be disrupted on the way to work, I check again at the end of the day at work to see if I'll be disrupted on the way home, and I check every weekend to see whereabouts the engineering works are and which rail replacement buses I need to avoid. I am therefore a little peeved that this feature no longer appears "above the fold". Previously when I went to the homepage I could see the list of lines and their current status straight away on the main screen. Now the list appears much further down so I can only see the top line, and for the rest I need to scroll. This is especially annoying because there's a huge amount of empty space on the right hand side of the TfL homepage, plenty big enough to fit a summary table of disruptions. But TfL's new site doesn't really do right-hand sides, having been optimised for vertical layout, hence I'm penalised for using a laptop in an increasingly smartphone world.

Hurrah for the appearance of Tramlink status on the TfL homepage for the first time. You can also check disruptions on major road corridors, and on the river, and at your favourite bus stops. There's also the opportunity to check the status of the cablecar - ideal in slightly blustery weather - although it does seem slightly perverse announcing a "Good service on all lines" after 8pm in the evening when it's shut down for the night.

OK, shall we shift to the main [Status updates] page, the one with the maps showing what's happening now?

On a mobile the status page is very simple - a minimised map followed by a list of line statuses. By default you get statuses for [Tube, DLR, Overground], that's 13 lines in total, in a list that's too big to appear on my iPhone screen in one go. Ridiculously it's almost too big to fit on my laptop screen too, such is the height of each row and the amount of white space all around. Arriving fresh on this page I now have to scroll down to see the bottom five lines, which is annoying when I used to be able to scan the whole list in one go. The default is to see lists of disruption by line, but with one click you can see a list of disrupted stations. Here's a seriously retrograde step. Previously the list started with [Closed stations], listed in red, then continued with all the (many) stations at which maintenance was taking place. Now the two lists have been combined, which means the one closed station (Embankment) is concealed behind a ladder of click-throughs arranged in alphabetical order. What this means is that if your local station has a sudden one-off emergency closure you'll never spot it, not a chance, not until you turn up and find the shutters closed.

Then, oh dear, there's the line status map. Here's what it used to look like.



All the disruptions were in colour and everything else was a faint grey. It was also possible to decide whether you wanted to see [Line closures], [Severe delays], [Minor delays] or a combination of the three. As a regular user of the tube, I found this very usable.

But now we have this.



The biggest change is that every station name now appears in blue. This looks fine once you zoom in, but at maximum scale the names now dominate the display in an extremely distracting way. Meanwhile you can no longer personalise the map according to type of delay, which makes it harder to spot which sections of line are totally shut and which are merely slow. But you can use the menu in the top right-hand corner to invert the shading so that the map only shows the lines which are running normally. That's going to be extremely useful for people who don't know the network well, as they now have a map clearly showing where they can travel, not just where they can't.

If you're particularly unfortunate, your map will instead look like this.



This is my view at work, where the IT team force me to use Internet Explorer 8, and Internet Explorer 8 can't cope. Instead I see strings of random station names running in lines across the screen, and absolutely nothing resembling a map whatsoever. That's because the new line status map isn't a straightforward image, it's been coded and crafted by designers who've been so clever that their handiwork doesn't work in older browsers. Well done folks, the skill with which you've reproduced Harry Beck's network diagram in code is no doubt cutting edge, but I can't use the bloody thing at all.

Want to see disruptions to your travel this weekend? That information's hidden on a menu behind the timestamp in the top right-hand corner of the page. You might never think to look there, but at least the weekend closures map is now more clearly signalled from the homepage. A calendar then allows you to check the map for any date in the future to see what engineering disruptions are planned, in a much more upfront way than used to be the case.

Status pages for other modes of transport are available on another dropdown menu. There's one for buses (sorry, Status maps coming soon), there's one for trams (sorry, Status maps coming soon), there's one for the river (sorry, Status maps coming soon) and there's one for the cablecar (sorry, Status maps coming soon). The status map for roads is however rather excellent... which is more than can be said for the status page for National Rail. Nothing's changed here in the last month, with TfL still insisting on showing rail travel updates for every train company in the land, including those that don't run anywhere near London. Top of the alphabetical list is Arriva Trains Wales, where we learn that the 19.30 service from Manchester Piccadilly to Carmarthen will not call at Swansea. Meanwhile significant parts of London rely on Southeastern, Southern and South West Trains to get to work, but they're down the bottom of the list, with any service changes squashed into long thin columns of text. South Londoners deserve much better than this, but presumably creating a bespoke feed of London-specific rail problems would involve employing somebody, and public organisations try not to do that any more.

I once went on a change management course so I know that most of us have an inbuilt resistance to new things because they're unfamiliar. Most of the things the TfL website used to do are still there, it's just that we need time to learn where they are and how they work. But that doesn't make all of the changes good. Yes, the new design includes some big improvements to functionality, but there are also some backwards steps too, especially for those attempting to use the site on larger screens. If you're a refusenik who wants to live in the past, then rejoice that the old version of the site is still available (for now) at origin.tfl.gov.uk. But better to engage with the design team direct, because constructive feedback is your best hope of influencing any future improvements.


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