The last year has seen

making a big effort to solve online usability issues, including a research project with agency cxpartners and the relaunch of its site in September.

Here, we speak to Iain Hildreth, the company’s director of marketing, about the challenges of making a complex booking service a smooth process for users.

Can you give us a quick summary of how thetrainline has tried to improve the user experience in the last year?

At the back end of last year and the first quarter of this year, we took a step back, I guess, and looked at the website with new eyes. The site had been running since 1999. Not much had been done from a usability perspective, and with Web 2.0 happening, it was clearly time for us to look at the site.

We started off doing some usability research with cxpartners, including in-depth qualitative research and user goal interviews. We spent some time listening in at our call centres and speaking to customers and people behind the counters at train stations, and that was a really good way of getting inside the mind of people when they go about buying train tickets. We wanted to find out the mental model and map that they go through, and identify the key barriers they face to buying tickets online.

A whole bunch of things came out of the research, including the front end of how people search for tickets, and how they book them. For instance, if you are going to Bristol and buy a ticket to Bristol Temple Meads, you end up in the city centre. But if you buy a ticket to Bristol Parkway, you end up four miles outside. People were getting a bit frustrated with that. Now, within the search box, if you type in Bristol it comes up with both stations and tells you where they are.

We also looked into the purchase process itself, which is not as simple as you would imagine. There are lots of variables – different times, prices and types of tickets – and one of the things we are trying to improve the fare presentation page. We are not there yet and we have further improvements to make on this. From a usability perspective, it is a real challenge to put together.

The new site went live in September. It included a series of relatively small usability improvements which overall, have improved the experience for people. There wasn’t a silver bullet.

What impact have these changes had? Have they justified the investment?

Yes, they have. I can’t give you any hard numbers for confidentiality reasons, but we have seen an improvement in the conversion rate since launching the new site.

We are also making further enhancements. We see usability as a bit of a journey. There were things that came out of the research that we haven’t put in place yet, for technical reasons. One thing we have coming up is to present all the ticket types – singles and returns – on the same screen, so it’s easier to compare them.

We want to make it as fast and convenient as possible for people to get the right ticket for them at the best prices. That requires small enhancements, rather than a radical overhaul. Unless the way tickets are classified changes fundamentally, the trade-offs customers need to make when choosing a ticket will remain the same. We want to understand how different types of customers make those trade-offs, and allow them to make them in the most efficient way possible.

An example of that is the ‘Best Fare Finder’ tool that we just launched. We noticed that there were lots of people that were more interested in getting a cheap ticket than about the time they travel. So it’s about identifying those customer segments and making the usability of the site as easy as we can.

What can qualitative customer feedback offer you that doesn’t necessarily show up in web stats, or from automated optimisation tools?

The difference is your web analytics tells you the ‘what’, but it doesn’t tell you the ‘why’. The qualitative stuff really helps you get under the skin of why people are doing stuff on the site.

One of the key things that came out of the research was that people like booking tickets at stations, because they want the personal touch and feel more confident, rightly or wrongly, that they will get the right ticket at the best price. You wouldn’t get that kind of thing through web analytics. You need to talk to people.

Any do’s and don’ts when conducting the research?

There’s the classic stuff like making sure you are asking the right questions and aren’t leading them through the task. You have to resist that temptation, even if they are tying themselves in the knot.

Recruitment is also extremely important. We recruited both business and leisure customers and tried to identify the issues for different types of customers. It’s important to get respondents that are opinionated. There’s nothing worse than sitting with someone that is obviously stuck, but just doesn’t say anything.

What are you doing in the area of split testing?

We use the Epiphany campaign management system, so we have the ability to change our messaging on our homepage and throughout the site based on user behaviour. We are increasingly focusing on that area. We have a lot of people coming to our site to check train times, not to necessarily buy tickets, and we have a real opportunity to convert more of those people.

For instance, we found out that there are many people that are worried about the fulfillment of their ticket; how they will get their ticket delivered. We are running a real-time test so we are putting up information that is relevant to ticket delivery, and we’ve seen our conversion rate improve as a result of that.

Have you looked at offering a co-browsing service?

It’s not something I’m aware we have looked at. We are looking at launching a ‘live help’ system and we have also looked to make the phone number much more accessible on the site, in case people have questions.

What trends are you seeing from travelers in the way they use your different channels to research and book tickets?

We are obviously working towards making the online booking process as smooth as possible, so people don’t need to call to book their ticket. It’s fine if that is their preferred method, but we aspire to a website where they don’t need to.

In general terms, people are becoming more comfortable with the web, and usability is improving. A lot of work has been done to improve payment and trust in the last four or five years, and people are becoming much more comfortable about buying online.

Can you give us an update on your mobile and print-at-home ticketing strategies?

We want mobile ticketing to happen and we have been running a couple of trials for the last year or so, on some of the train operating company websites we run. One is print-at-home ticketing and one is mobile ticketing, where the ticket is sent to your mobile device.

With mobiles, usability is a challenge. People have to register their handset, and there are quite a lot of usability barriers. But from people that do sign up to use mobile, we are seeing pretty high repeat purchase rates.

On print-at-home, uptake has been higher than mobile and higher than we expected. We are in the process of rolling out print-at-home on a lot of the West Coast routes. 

One of the issues with both mobile and print-at-home is validation. Someone at the station or on the train has to validate that ticket so it requires a level of investment from the train operating companies as well. Everyone needs to work together; can’t do it on our own. But it’s what customers want and expect now — in our research, customers were asking why they can print off their easyjet plane ticket but they can’t print off their train ticket.

It’s something that will come and we should start to see some momentum build towards having it on a national basis across all routes.