Usability Problems | October 2, 2006

About 6 months ago I was doing some CSS training in the north of England and wanted to buy a return train ticket. I tried to book tickets using but it was such a nightmare I swore never to use them again. Sadly I didn’t learn from my mistakes and 6 months later I’m back at their site desperate to part with my money and being thwarted at every turn.

Finding train times is the easy bit. You put in your dates, location and ideal times and get back a table of results. The time dropdown allows you to specify departure and arrival times in blocks of 15 minutes. Rather annoyingly if you only specify the hour and not the minutes you get an error message. It would be much easier if the “00” minutes option was preselected to avoid this unnecessary error, but it’s a minor annoyance.

However this is where things start to go wrong. At the bottom of the page is a button marked “Check Availability and Prices”. You would naturally think that pressing this button would take you to a page showing availability and prices. After all this is the promise the website is making, and this is exactly the information I’m after at this stage in the buying cycle.

Sadly clicking on this link takes you to a page with a log-in or register prompt. Now this is really frustrating on two levels. First off the website has lied to me and not honoured their promise to show me availability and prices. Secondly they are forcing me to register for a site that I may never use, before they have given me enough information for me to make an informed decision about whether I want to register or not. This is the web equivalent of forcing me to sign up for a store card before knowing how much the store costs or if they have any stock.

Still I really wanted to buy these tickets so I struggled on. I filled in a couple of pages of information about myself, my company etc. One rather odd thing here was the “can we spam you with marketing rubbish and offer” section. The marketing rubbish option was check box you had to uncheck, whereas the offers were un-selected yes/no radio buttons. Not sure why the two different types of element for pretty much the same question, but again I let that go.

I then got to a page with a section that asked me to fill in my office address if it wasn’t the same as my business address I filled in on the previous page. I filled in the rest of the form on this page and then clicked submit. The page bought back a required field error message on the phone number of the office address that was supposed to be optional. I filled it in with the same info as before, hit submit but got back to the same error. I tried removing the spaces and trying a different phone number but whatever I did I couldn’t progress through the process. The page would just hang for 30 seconds and then deposit me back at the same point. I tried clicking the back button, but it didn’t take me anywhere so tried to start the registration process again.

This time my log-in details were pre-filled so I though perhaps my registration may have succeeded without me knowing. Sadly this was just the browser being helpful so I hit register. Strangely, rather than being presented with 3 pages of stuff to fill in I was presented with a single page asking for a name, email address and password. I imagine the data from my previous registration attempt was stored as a cookie which was nice, but it through me off a little bit. Still after 30 minutes and my second attempt at registering I was finally able to see the train availability and costs.

Was this worth the effort. In all honestly the answer is no. By forcing me to register and then the registration not working, it left me feeling very negative about the and mistrustful of their services.

Posted at October 2, 2006 3:07 PM


Rob McM said on October 2, 2006 3:18 PM

As part of my degree we were asked to perform a usability analysis of the using heuristics, cognitive walkthroughs and user testing.

It failed drastically…

Sadly there are not many other sites you can use instead :(

Rob Wilmshurst said on October 2, 2006 3:41 PM

It’s a nightmare — I try avoiding almost every online train service because they all use the same system. It’s appalling.
Q-Jump, SouthWest Trains, you name ‘em, they’re all using this horrible system which instills no confidence whatsoever in the company.

You’d think they’d try to make the experience as smooth as possible, if only to detract from the extortionate fares ;)

dan said on October 2, 2006 3:45 PM is such an awfully designed site, I usually just call them up instead of wasting time on the site.
One thing that annoys me is that you cannot flip back and forth between pages easily (they all have to be rendered and loaded whenever you want to do something) and god help you if you want to ammend times/data when you get near the end, its easier to just clear your cookies and start from scratch.
Or go via a competitors site …

Lee said on October 2, 2006 3:54 PM

I tend to use National Rail Enquiries site for train times, prices etc:

It looks like you can purchase tickets and it gives you a choice of vendors. Maybe this will be better for you Andy?

Jemima said on October 2, 2006 4:32 PM

Oooooh, I couldn’t agree more. I ranted about this on my site a couple of years ago, and still the problem persists (not to say that my rant would have made the difference; but you’d hope that years of bad usability might have been brought to an end). I have not found a better site for bookings.

Fantastically, you can raise your stress levels yet further by playing ‘guess the working machine’ when you go to pick up your tickets at the self service machines at train stations. The amazing thing that they do is appear to work for most of the process, and then deny all knowledge of your credit card just when you’re expecting your tickets to be printed. Try that while hearing the last call for your train…

And, breathe….

Richard Flynn said on October 2, 2006 5:39 PM

I agree, is pretty horrific. However, as Rob McM hints above, all the different railway companies share a single user database (bizarre) so, you can register with Virgin, GNER, First Great Western, Southwest Trains, whoever, and then you can use the same login details for all of the other sites. Perhaps some of the other operators have a more successful registration process?

Matthew said on October 2, 2006 7:46 PM

I, obviously, use my traintimes site for timetables and prices. ;-) But as I recently added to that page - if you need to purchase tickets, National Rail recently changed their site so that you have to re-enter all your details when you go to a ticketing website, which you never used to have to do. So if you actually want to buy tickets online, don’t use National Rail’s site (or mine).

What’s also odd is that if a particular ticket seems to be sold out online (e.g. an advance cheap ticket), it might well still be available if you ring up and ask…

Rick Hurst said on October 2, 2006 8:38 PM

I was going to say I had similar frustrations with being chucked out of the registration process on (yeah, I know it was freebie!), talking of which what’s happening with that - it’s just a picture of a mac mini at the moment?

Andy Budd said on October 2, 2006 8:54 PM

The new site was launched too eairly and it was full of bugs. The site was built for free and the developers landed a big contract which meant they didn’t have time to fix the issues. After a month of waiting I finally decided to pull the plug. Sadly I no longer have time to look after SkillSwap, so it looks like the project is over for the time being.

Olly said on October 3, 2006 8:19 AM


You have the patience of a saint. is utterly dreadful. Not only is it overcomplicated, confusing and infuriating, if you’re patient enought to struggle through to the ticket and price information you’re guaranteed to be offered only the most expensive tickets. No bargain Apex tickets I’m afraid, but would Sir like to pay £169 each way, first class, on the midnight express?

It’s bizarre because when you phone National Rail Enquiries and buy tickets over the phone, you get offered great deals which didn’t appear on the website. It’s like the website only shares a subset of the ticketing data. Truly bizarre.

Lucky for us then that now monopolises the websites of all the train operators in the UK!


Rick Hurst said on October 3, 2006 8:52 AM

Re: bargain tickets not being offered - I can add some insight into that as unfortunately I used to work for national rail enquiries in a past life. There is indeed only a small allocation of bargain tickets (Apex etc) per train - the more desirable the train, the less available. The best way to get one is to work out your times first (via a nice friendly useable website - i’ve heard some of the german ones are good:-) then phone up and enquire about the availability of bargain tickets on each of them - get in very early

Andy Budd said on October 3, 2006 10:53 AM

Out of interest here are a couple of cool little sites from Matthew Somerville.

Paul said on October 4, 2006 8:46 AM

try accessing the site through a mobile device - almost impossible :)

Cliff Boobyer said on October 4, 2006 12:54 PM

Surely it’s appropiate though if you think about it… Shocking train services lead to shocking web sites for train services.

Kabari said on October 7, 2006 11:02 AM

That sounds like a pain. I get situations like that here in Chicago sometimes with commercial rail line websites for Metra and Amtrak. I think the best site like that that I use is the site for the CTA (chicago transit authority). They have a few bugs, but the site is simple, reliable, and accurate.

And for the comment on accessing the site from a mobile, isn’t it nuts how many simple services like that are pretty much inaccessible from the phone?

Nice Paul said on October 11, 2006 9:55 AM

A couple more useful links…
Train times for mobile/PDA: Kizoom mobile
Until National Rail updated their site, this was the best timetable lookup for UK trains: Die Bahn (German site, in English)