Update on German train ticket machines
Published by Martin Kleppmann on 29 Jan 2008.
A while ago I wrote some posts about the user interfaces of ticket machines in Germany
article 2). Meanwhile I am
told that they have been improved considerably: the ‘Fast purchase’ route is now considerably
faster, requiring a minimum of only 4 or 5 clicks to buy a standard ticket (compare that to 16
clicks previously!). The way they have done that is to skip the whole timetable thing; instead you
only select whether or not you want to take the fast trains (which has an effect on the price).
That’s a very good start, since it optimises the common case: people who routinely buy the same
ticket and know exactly what they need. And for those with unusual requirements, there’s still the
long route with its multitude of different options to choose from.
Despite these changes, plenty of
usability challenges remain. For example, my friend told me that he didn’t realise when using the
machine when he had reached the payment screen: he could have just inserted his card, but instead
found himself looking around for the “next” button to press. There was just some small and
non-obvious bit of text on screen explaining that you were now ready to
In fact the usability problems of German train ticket machines are still so pronounced that the
national rail company (DB) is now offering courses to teach people how to use them. (See the
scanned newspaper article, taken from Aalener
Nachrichten/Schwäbische Zeitung, Tuesday 18th December 2007. Sorry that it's more than a month old,
I've not had much time to blog recently.)
This article is somehow slightly scary and hilarious at
the same time, in the way how the train staff systematically blame the users for their inability to
use the system, rather than seeking the blame with the system itself. Hilarious because it’s so
stereotypical, and scary because such a big organisation can get away with it without people putting
up a fuss and explaining that this is just not acceptable.
Some highlights from the article:
Moschner [the course instructor] says that the new ticket machines have a
more visible display and also accept cash besides credit and debit cards. "Are they just as
cumbersome as the old ones?" an over-70-year-old lady enquires. The course instructor remains calm:
"They are not cumbersome."
Hmm. Complete denial of the existence of problems. Two more
quotes indicate that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of user behaviour going on:
"Read what it says there. It is important."
"The ticket machine really does tell
you what it wants, you just have to look."
Why should I be trying to find out what the
ticket machine wants? It should be trying to find out what *I *want! Also, I shouldn’t have to
read every word on the screen. That’s simply not what people do. People don’t even read whether
doors are labelled ‘PUSH’ or ‘PULL’ before trying one or the other. People just press random buttons
in the hope of getting somewhere quickly, and the system should be designed to cope with this sort
of behaviour. Anything else is just unrealistic and designed for robots rather than
Fortunately this course is a positive initiative, probably with a thought along the lines
of “well, if we can’t get the design right, at least we can teach people how to use the broken
design”. I guess that’s a valid approach to the problem. And hey, 8 people turned up to that course,
maybe that’s 8 fewer people who get frustrated with the machines. Sounds a bit like a drop in an
ocean to me though.