Next Generation Passenger Information
When talking about innovation with customers I sometimes quote the legendary author William Gibson (known for coining the term “cyberspace”), who once said:
“The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.”
In my view innovation is not just about inventing, it is also about distributing. And often it is the latter that takes the longest, is the hardest to achieve and requires the production of something at a price point and level of quality that enables it to be widely adopted.
As an example, Microsoft released the Surface table in 2008, and it was a magnificent feat of engineering, as described here by Jeff Atwood:
“The Surface table was actually…kind of amazing. I've only ever seen one, in the lobby of a Seattle hotel in 2008. I went in sceptical, but when I actually got to try the Surface table, I came away impressed. It was a fascinating and intuitive multi-touch experience.”
But it is arguably Apple who brought a slick multi-touch experience to the masses in 2010 with the release of the iPad. As Martin Fowler commented at the time:
“There's no dramatic new technology, we've seen tablets before…But the overall package was a game-changer…I do think that this kind of device will make huge difference to how we read and watch things in the future.”
And that “overall package” certainly included great battery life, portability and (crucially) a price that was 20 times lower than the Surface table.
In this post I talked about the massive impact that social media is having on the provision of information to railway passengers. However, it is important to realise that this doesn’t mean we should stop innovating the more traditional methods of information delivery, because these are still relied on heavily, as described by this report from Passenger Focus:
“In all cases, apps are used as a supplement to the ‘traditional’ information sources rather than as a replacement for them.”
“In the research that we are doing within East Midlands Trains we are still seeing that applications and websites make up a very small proportion of customers accessing real time information. Traditional CIS still far outruns everything else.
I think the presentation of CIS (the traditional LED on a big black display) needs looking at so that it becomes aesthetically pleasing to the environment that it’s in.”
The great news is that, in some ways, the future is already here. Adidas have proved that the right combination of display technology and software delivers real benefits: that’s why they have chosen to roll out the Virtual Footwear Wall to over 60 installations in 17 countries (and boosted sales as a result).
But it seems to me that a key to utilising these technologies to really improve the delivery of information to railway passengers is to remember that it isn’t just about making things look nicer, it is about making the communication of information more effective. Linda Richardson, National Express Bid Team Customer Experience Manager, conducted some fascinating research at c2c, into how passengers engage with traditional information screens:
“It involved asking passengers to wear eye tracking glasses as they navigated through a station to catch their train. After this they were interviewed whist viewing a video of what they had been looking at and for how long, throughout the exercise. A mix of commuter, leisure and business customers, including disabled customers took part in the trials.
What this revealed was that certain types of animation that are commonly used on passenger information displays actually make it much harder for passengers to identify the correct train to catch. It also highlighted that sometimes passengers were not choosing the fastest train to get to their destination, but they were completely unaware of the mistake. They would never have complained about the passenger information because they were not aware that they could have caught a faster train. But this flaw in information delivery would potentially lead to them believing that trains services were too infrequent or too slow.”
This research is being used by c2c to drive their strategy for passenger information in the future and they are sharing their findings more widely so that the whole rail industry can benefit.
In summary, it seems to me that this is what we currently know about information screens at stations:
- they will continue to play a crucial role in passenger experience for the foreseeable future
- there is significant scope to improve them
- the required technology and infrastructure to build a “game changing” information display already exists
The only question is whether the right combination of functionality and price, coupled with an appetite across the rail industry to move in this direction, can make next generation information displays a reality across the entire rail network?