When running a public service, one of the most important aspects of what you do is helping users find the information they need as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is this design principle that has inexplicably led to the British government becoming world leaders in making websites.
GOV.UK, run by the Government Digital Service (GDS) was setup a few years ago with the task of untangling the government’s mess of websites and services and coming up with a system that would take the pain out of interacting with government agencies. It has been hugely successful – especially if you remember what a pain the likes of DirectGov was before. The GOV.UK homepage is dominated by a search box, where you can type in what you need (“renew driving license”, “dates of bank holidays”, etc) and it’ll serve up what you need in a plain, and user friendly way. It isn’t perfect yet, of course (there are still legacy systems to integrate with, like the archaic and byzantine “Government Gateway” for the tax office), but it is a hell of a lot better than what it could be.
I mention this, because if you want a vision of hell, imagine if the internet was entirely designed by whoever designed the website for Arriva buses, which operates bus services in many different parts of the country.
Over Christmas I was visiting my parents in Leicestershire and on Boxing Day wanted to catch a bus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how regular the bus would come – and crucially, it being Christmas, whether it would run at all. So please join me on a terrifying journey through the Arriva website.
So first, I did a Google search to find the bus timetable website. So far, so good:
Right, so here’s the buses. Now I know that I need the “X3” bus – I just need the timetable. So I popped “X3” into the search box.
Hurrah, that’s the bus I need. Just to click on the link to find the X3 details, right?
Great, so here’s the page for the X3 bus route, completely with barely helpful map. Ah – I was going to scroll down and look for the regular timetable, but it appears they have a special Christmas timetable in operation. I better look at that for my Boxing Day travel.
Right… umm… that’s taken me back to a Christmas splash page. And the website now doesn’t remember that I’m looking at Leicestershire buses or want the X3 route. I’ve now got to re-select my region. Better click on “Midlands”.
Hmm, another splash page – this time for Arriva buses in the Midlands. Same Reindeer photo. Better click the Midlands-specific link.
Now the list of places in my region with links to Christmas timetables. But Leicestershire is listed – brilliant!
So that’s now loaded up a PDF in my browser with extra details for a tonne of different bus routes I don’t care about – alongside the X3.
And what’s that note for the 26th December? Arriva will be operating a “Normal Sunday service during main shopping hours. (see separate leaflet for details)”. That sounds awfully non-specific, but where on earth would I find the separate leaflet?
So back to the original X3 page, to see what a “normal Sunday service” looks like. Better download the normal timetable and given the last “service update” was for October, I hope the normal timetable explains what “main shopping hours” are defined as…
Finally! The details I need – well, sort of anyway, as I now know there will be a bus every hour, according to the Sunday timetable. Let’s just hope that both me and Arriva have similar definitions of what would constitute “normal shopping hours”, right?
So there we have it – ten clicks to find out some basic information (I mean, what else does a bus service do?), that may not actually be specific enough for the journey I am planning to make.
All of this ambiguity could be removed if Arriva would build a website that would take the user experience into consideration. Given we how we own devices that can exchange data, and given that computers can learn about us, it is pretty trivially easy for professional developers to build a system that could contain all of the timetables and have them searchable – rather than leaving it to users to do the heavy lifting by scouring PDFs. I’m pretty sure that even Franz Kafka would describe this as Arriva-esque.
The sooner the GDS principles are taken up by other public services, the better.
Full disclosure: Your author’s partner works for GDS, but she didn’t help him write this. And anyway this piece is more about slagging off Arriva, which surely no one would admit to working for?