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While looking for ideas for my summer holiday recently, I looked at the Eurostar website, and was disappointed by the poor user experience.
I've listed ten areas where Eurostar could improve online, and which would have a positive effect on its conversion rates...
Design a site for higher screen resolutions
My first impression of the website wasn't good, since it only fills half the screen. Most web users have higher screen resolutions than this site has been designed for, which means it looks pretty bad for most visitors.
Give clear information about ticket collection
Customers can choose to either print tickets at home or else print them out at a fast-ticket machine (though people are advised to do this 45 minutes before departure). Curiously there is no third option of mailing tickets for people who don't have a printer, or just don't want to use the machines.
However, as this customer's poor experience with Eurostar shows, the website clearly doesn't know which stations have these ticket machines and which don't.
Having booked a ticket from Cologne to London when flights were grounded recently, and being told to collect it from the ticket machine, he arrived at the station to find that Cologne had no Eurostar e-ticket machine.
This error was made worse as they were forced to pay again on board the train and attempt to claim back the costs later. A case of a website badly letting customers down.
Anticipate one-way journeys
I tried to search for one-way journeys from London to Paris, but the website simply won't let me do this. Having selected my journey date and time and clicked the search link, I get an error message:
There is a tick box for a one-way journey, but this option could be made clearer, while a better solution would be to assume that users who leave the return date empty want a single ticket, thus eliminating the need for ticking boxes.
Make searches more flexible
I arrived on the site looking for ideas for my holiday, and trying to find out what journeys were on offer, and how much they would cost, but it turns out this is not so easy to do on the site.
For example, if I select a journey and see results and prices, while I can click the 'later trains' link to see other trains that same day, it won't let you move to the next or previous day, meaning that you have to go back and search for each individual day.
There is also no modify search option, so to adjust dates and times, users have to start again from scratch.
So, Eurostar completely fails to help users that are flexible on dates and times.
Anticipate user errors
The best way to handle user errors is to anticipate common input errors and correct them as seamlessly as possible to avoid any unnecessary frustration for users.
For example, some retailers anticipate that some customers will type the letter 'O' when entering a postcode when a zero is needed, and accept either entry to make the process smoother.
Eurostar doesn't do this, so users can select journeys which are unavailable, or search for journeys when the return date is before the outward date. This will produce error messages and add to customer frustration.
Don't time users out too quickly
I encountered this message for too often when searching for trains. I appreciate that it can't display my results forever, but it often timed me out within a minute or two, which is far too quick.
Help users find the cheapest deal
Most train websites will provide the option of searching for the cheapest tickets for a particular journey, either by listing the cheapest first, allowing users to search for two singles instead of a return ticket, or to include it in the advanced search options.
There is an option to look for cheapest fares on the homepage, but I initially missed it. Perhaps this means it should be made clearer, or I need a better pair of glasses.
Don't make users work to hard to book tickets
This is absolutely crazy. It is possible to travel between London and Aix En Provence, and these tickets are available on Eurostar, but you have to book the two legs of the journey separately.
This means booking the London to Paris return ticket, going through the checkout and paying for it, before having to repeat the process for the Paris to Provence leg.
As well as being annoying and time-consuming, this means customers have to book the first part without knowing connection times, and could easily end up with a long wait between trains.
Why, when every other train website can deal with this kind of booking, does Eurostar make it such hard work?
Make contact details easier to find
With so many usability issues, I imagine that users will have plenty of reason to call Eurostar to book or to find some help.
When users encounter error messages during the booking process, it would be a good idea to provide a visible contact number so users know how to find assistance quickly.
However, the contact link is buried at the foot of the page, and though there is a contact number, it is labelled 'telephone bookings', which may be misleading for customers wanting to ask a question.
Clearer calls to action
Calls to action should be made easy for users to find; there should be no doubt about what they need to do to proceed to the next step in the booking or payment process.
However, the calls to action on Eurostar are too easily missed, as in the example below, where the continue booking link not only appears well below the fold, but blends too easily into the rest of the text on the page:
An effective call to action should stand out clearly from the page by using clear language, large text sizes, colour and contrast to make them easily visible to users.
Apart from the ten points I have highlighted here, the whole look and feel of the site feels very dated, and it looks like it hasn't been revamped for several years, not a great first impression for customers.
While there are issues here and there with rail websites in the UK, most have improved considerably over the last few years, and avoid most of the usability issues outlines here. Eurostar should take note.