diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The ever-so-slow rollout of TfL's new website continues. The first phase came last June, with a new way to Plan Your Journey. A further update arrived in December, adding a Nearby function as well as Live Departures. And this month they've added the final features, meaning the beta website is "finished and ready to replace our existing site". Old and new will be run in parallel for a while to allow tweaks to be made and bugs to be fixed, but before long the existing site will be retired and we'll all have to use the new one. So, is it an improvement?

The key difference, as I've mentioned before, is that TfL's new website has been designed with smartphones in mind. Text links have been replaced by buttons that are easier for chunky fingers to push, and the layout of pages is mostly portrait rather than landscape. For those out and about with a mobile device the design will be more intuitive, whereas those at home with a computer screen should expect more white space and more scrolling.

Let's take a look at the six latest additions...

1) Bus route maps
Where would you expect to look for a bus map on a website? The tab at the top labelled "Maps", or the button halfway down the home page that says "Buses"? I assumed the former, which brings up a list of all the maps available on the new TfL website. Compare and contrast old and new. Old has all the maps listed on the same page, with pictures as a further visual clue. New divides TfL's maps up into six separate (pictureless) sections, and an additional click is required to discover two further bus options. "Find bus routes and stops" is one, and "Bus maps by route or by borough" is the other, but both of these take you back to the old website. The only maps here are pdfs, or tiny Google squares of staggering uselessness. No, to find bus maps on the new website you should have clicked on that word "Buses", and then typed in a route number, and then woo.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have zoomable interactive Google maps showing precisely where any bus goes. Admittedly we had used to have this before, but the new maps have greater functionality, plus a linear version of the route stop by stop at the bottom of the page. Click on any red dot on the map (or in the list) to see which buses stop there and when the next is due. The maps can get a bit complicated, and it's a shame you can't switch off some of the blobs or labels to avoid information overload, but the idea is sound. Every bus now has its own bespoke route page, for example beta.tfl.gov.uk/bus/route/25 or beta.tfl.gov.uk/bus/route/100, just replace the number at the end with any route to get the map of your choice. There are teething problems, for example the R8 definitely doesn't run in a straight line through the Bromley countryside, but a lot of coding has taken place to make sure this lot mostly works.

I'm less excited by the new bus timetables, which are a little basic. Pick a route and a bus stop and the beta website tells you when the buses leave, or how often they leave, or maybe a mix and match of both. The day is divided up into segments, but there are no lines to guide you, only changes in shading. Particularly poorly thought out are the first and last buses each day. A 24 hour bus route like the 25 doesn't have first and last buses, but the beta website says it does, the former at 00:05, the latter at 23:59. A daytime-only bus like the 100 does have first and last buses, but the first should be at 06:00, not 00:06, as the website insists. Rather more useful is what happens if you click on each section of the timetable, because this brings up a list of stops and how long your journey should be at any particular time of day. Try playing with the new set-up and see what you think.

2) Tube status interactive map
For those of us that travel by tube, one of the most useful features on the entire TfL site is the list of line status updates and accompanying map. That's now finally upgraded, and gives a subtly different experience to what you're used to. Compare and contrast old and new. The new map doesn't zoom in as quickly as you're used to, and oh dear, that's not the right font is it? All the effort TfL usually goes to in applying consistent branding has been jettisoned, and a lookalike font has been used to name all the stations. I'm disappointed. The new map also doesn't always fit inside its box properly, or maybe that's just the two browsers I've tried using. And the new map greys out the stations, which the old map didn't, which I think makes the new design harder to take on board.

The options for viewing line disruptions are also different to what you're used to. The old map showed "Line closures" and "Severe delays" by default, ie serious blockages, and you could toggle "Minor delays" if you so wished. The new map bundles all three disruptions together, with no option of separation, giving a less good overview of which parts of the network are stuffed. Your only choices are to display disruptions in colour, or to display them in grey, the latter particularly useful today with a major tube strike underway. Where the new map really falls down is in showing which stations, if any, are closed. On the old map there's a special tab which lists closed stations in red before listing more minor access issues underneath. The new map makes no such distinction, instead presenting a mega-list in alphabetical order with every disruption concealed until you click. The chances of spotting a genuinely closed station in amongst this virtual haystack are minimal, I'd suggest.

One more grumble. The main map is for "Tube, DLR and Overground" line status but an additional interloper has sneaked in. That's the cablecar, whose operational status appears on a completely separate page, but designers have shoehorned it onto the tube status map instead. I wouldn't mind if it was greyed out but no, the cablecar appears in Emirates red no matter what its status. You probably won't spot this odd-one-out-ness on a tube strike day, but on a normal day the cablecar's splash of colour glares out like a subliminal advert, which I suspect may be the intention.

3) Fares and single fare finder
Once upon a time TfL published a leaflet listing every different kind of fare. A few years ago they switched to providing several big tables on their website. And in the future we'll have lots of separate click-through lists where you drill down and eventually find the fare you need. Easier to find what you need, perhaps, but slower, and also much much harder to compare one fare with another. One tab lists "Most popular fares", which could be very helpful, but the list of "Popular Travelcards" includes two (Z1-3 and Z1-5) that no longer exist. The Single fare finder no longer seems to be able to cope with Overground or National Rail stations, which is a seriously retrograde step. And will anyone understand the mysterious fare options on the cablecar page, which are delivered with zero explanation?

4) National Rail status board
Oh blimey, what happened here? Compare old and new, and sigh. TfL's current website has a tab for National Rail status full of relevant information, but restricted to rail companies that actually serve London. The new website lists every UK rail company, in alphabetical order, including trains in Scotland, trains in Liverpool and trains on the Isle of Wight. It's surely ridiculous on a London-based travel website to kick off with Arriva Trains Wales, which means the top travel disruption is currently "line is currently closed between Machynlleth and Pwllhelli". A large part of London relies on South West, Southern and Southeastern trains, but they're at the bottom (scroll down, scroll down), and restricted to a ridiculously narrow column which makes reading travel updates on screen difficult. Perhaps the promised "status map" will help, but I have my doubts. Bit of a mess all round, sorry.

5) Website search
It's not working, is it?

6) Travel maps section
And finally, let's compare old and new again. Old has an interactive tube map, new doesn't. New has an interactive Congestion Charge and LEZ map, old doesn't. Both have Cycle Hire docking station maps, of very different types. It's a complete upheaval this new beta website, and no mistake.

TfL's new website is on its way, and soon, replacing everything you've got used to using online over the last decade. It's a positive step in many ways, embracing smartphone usage and optimised for travel on the go. But it's also a bit of a mess in places, and not always intuitive to navigate, and inefficiently laid out for desktop users, and takes an awful lot of clicks sometimes to get to anything useful. It's great that the Agile Programming Team are letting us play with their new creation as it develops. Let's hope the experimental phase lasts just a little while longer, so that everything works by the time the rest of the capital is forced to use it.

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