System Design From a Distance

A brief example of how an automated system can create a crappy customer experience when built in isolation.

I catch a train to work 5 days a week. My local station is a fairly basic affair with a two long platforms, four shelters, a bike stand and two LED passenger information displays (one for each platform).

Because the station is unmanned, the LED displays have an in-built speaker & computer generated voice that informs passengers which train is due next, what stations it calls at and reminds everyone to buy a ticket.

There are a number of things about this automated audio announcement that makes me believe the person/people who designed it have never set foot on my platform.

  1. Before 7am, the automated message seems to be set to some sort of default and just says “Infotec Digital Displays” with no passenger information.
  2. While the announcements for platform 1 are happening, platform 2 announcements start talking over it. The result is often incomprehensible noise.
  3. The computer generated voice clearly wasn’t designed to pronounce Welsh place names. The way it mangles Penrhiwceiber is impressively bad, making it sound more like a location in the Klingon Empire.
  4. There’s a regular announcement informing passengers that they should buy a ticket NOW to avoid facing a fine or prosecution. The stern robotic voice inspires visions of a dystopian future where we are ruled by our automaton overlords.
  5. The announcements about fines/prosecutions continue to happen regardless of how horrifically bad the service is running. This has personally inspired urges to shimmy up the post and beat it into silence.
  6. Logically speaking, I and many of my fellow passengers at that time of the morning are commuters. We don’t need to know what train is next and where it’s stopping. We catch it everyday. It’ll be the same as yesterday (pending delays). Also I have a ****ing season ticket!!!

Whoever setup this automated announcement system probably thought they were covering all the bases. Standing on the platform observing the thing in action would have provided an additional layer of context and highlighted some basic flaws in their thinking. Like not being able to pronounce Welsh place names… in Wales.

This is a reminder for all of us who have a hand in designing services (digital or otherwise). Check your assumptions by experiencing the actual environment that people are going to use your ‘thing’ in. You have hidden assumptions. What are you doing to uncover and challenge them?


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