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Trains and usability

Sometimes I think that on British trains they're performing some kind of weird experiments in bad design. The toilets on many trains have this set of buttons:

Train buttons: close, lock, open

Correct! Ten out of ten for whoever designed them, simple as they might seem. They're easy to understand and they're in the order you actually use them. But on today's train they're like this:

Train buttons: close, open, lock

Huh...? Reading down the panel, it's easy to make the mistake of only getting as far as the first button before pulling your trousers down. It seems this has happened, too, because they helpfully added a sign above the buttons which says "Don't forget to lock (L) the door!" Big hint: if you need to give users hints like that, you've designed it wrong.

One thing you could do is combine the "close" and "lock" buttons into one, since it's very rare that anyone's going to close the door from inside wanting it to stay unlocked. On a train last week they'd done that, but they'd done something else weird:

Train buttons: open, close-and-lock

Firstly the buttons are in the wrong order: since we read from left to right it gets confusing to press the rightmost button first, especially in the context of a "paragraph" where the instructions are written (for no good reason) as entire sentences. Secondly the curling pattern of the arrows sends the eyes round in a loop, making it hard to grasp in a single glance which sentence belongs with which button.

So far I've not been on a train using the scheme

Train buttons: close-and-lock, open

although it's hardly rocket science.

But, thrillseekers, that's not all. On today's train there are little LED displays to indicate whether a seat is reserved or not. They display the scrolling sentences "This seat is reserved" or "This seat is not reserved". This ridiculous interface means that, 90% of the time, you can't tell if a seat is reserved or not when you glance at the display. If they instead chose the briefer messages "Reserved" or "Available" there'd be no need for scrolling and the difference would be clear, 100% of the time.

The LED displays are high up (on the luggage racks) and not obviously associated with the seats, unlike the older system of sticking little paper tickets in the top of each seat, a technology which worked perfectly well. Literally as I write this, a young family has got on the train, looked at the seats, and concluded to one another "Oh, OK, you can sit where you like on this train", then sat in some seats which are actually reserved. The displays are entirely un-obvious, and I wonder if they're about to be the cause of a fight...

Just for completeness I should quickly mention the disabled persons' alarm button in the loos, which people apparently kept pressing because they thought it was the flush; and the buttons to open the train doors which took about 3 seconds to show any indication of reacting to being pushed (e.g. by opening the doors) - on one train I was on, the conductor kept having to announce, "If you are getting off at the next station, please push the button then wait - the doors will open eventually - don't panic and press the emergency button."

Who knows what training people go through before they put these things together, but all the mistakes are like the mistakes beginners make when putting together websites or software programs. It would be helpful to recommend to these engineers a book like The Humane Interface, or some of Jakob Nielsen's usability articles...

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