I travelled to Leeds to visit a client on a Virgin Cross Country train last week. Above each pair of seats on the train is a small LED sign that says if the seat is reserved or not (see the picture – sorry about the quality it was taken on my phone in less than fantastic light). This is a great idea, it means that the staff can enter the reserved seats from a central computer rather than having to walk down the train to stick the little paper cards in the top of the headrests.
When a seat is reserved it says, for example:
“10 Sheffield to Leeds” (referring to ‘Seat Number’, ‘Reserved From’ and ‘Reserved To’ respectively)
If it is free it says:
“This seat is not reserved”
The problem is that the screens aren’t large enough to display the whole message, so it has to scroll – and it scrolls quite slowly. So when you are trying to find a seat you have to stand and wait to read the slowly scrolling message before you know if it is available. However, this just isn’t possible when there are a lot of people pushing to get on to the train. This situation could be improved:
The unreserved seat problem scrolling problem is trivial so solve. We simply change the message to say what the seat is rather than what it isn’t: “This seat is not reserved” becomes “Available”. Or, if you want to really spell it out “Seat Available”. This is much better – you don’t need to perform the logical deduction of ‘the seat is not reserved therefore it is available’, or as Jakob Nielsen puts it “Usability increases when users need fewer mental transformations to convert a sentence into actionable understanding”. Also, as it is much shorter the display doesn’t need to scroll and you can tell at a glance that it is available.
There isn’t much we can do with the wording on the Reserved seats, but we could make life a little better. As far as I can tell, the notices are put up at the start of the journey and left until the end. This means when I read the notices I am expected to have knowledge of the route – as an occasional train user I don’t know the order of the stops. Major cities I can guess at but I haven’t a clue about the smaller village stations! Have we gone past them? If I take this seat will someone ask me to move in a few stops time? I have no idea! The train knows where we are on the route (there’s another display above the doors showing the next stop) so why not tap into this status and automatically change the seats to “Available” when the stops they refer to have been passed? Granted, this doesn’t tell us if the duration the seat is reserved for is after the point where we want to get off but it is certainly an improvement!
I guess if you catch the train regularly you can quickly spot the available seats; but you are used to an imperfect system rather than it being well designed!
When writing information displays:
- Say what it is (use positive statements)
- Use an active voice
- Your objective is to communicate fact – make every word count (it really doesn’t come across as terse!)
- Consider the environment they will be seen in and cater for any handicaps this introduces.