Tuesday, 20 May 2003

Indian Railways Reservation: A User Experience Analysis

Indian Railways re-launched their site with a reservation module. The website is functionally sound, but it can improve its revenue and utilization significantly by attending to its business strategy and usability problems. It was heartening to see Indian Railways launching a website to make online reservations. Railways, one of the oldest institutions have come a long way since the first rail run from Bori Bunder to Thane on April 16, 1853. We thought that it would be interesting to analyze the website of an organization, with whom most of us have interacted at least once in our life. Well there are plenty pf URLs to reach the railways (http://www.indianrailways.com/, http://www.indiarail.gov.in/, http://www.irctc.co.in/, http://www.indiarailways.gov.in/ and many more regional ones.). These do not redirect to the same site either. Lets take up www.indianrailways.com as our reference. (As the online reservation site asks to register even to search for a train). Task Efficiency and Usability
First things first: Its common sense that most of the people access this site for making inquiry or reservation. Instead, when you open the page you find Bholu, the elephant waiting to welcome you underneath a pop up ad. If enquiry and reservations is the primary purpose of the site, the same should be available as the first thing on the homepage (see this list of Travel and Reservation sites which practice this). Slogans takes precedence like, "Welcome to Indian Railway's Reservation Enquiry Web Site”, "Amadeus is my most preferred CRS" (What's CRS?) and "Designed by CRIS" are annoying.

Automation should simplify life: Sadly, it is usually not the case. Station Names and Codes are classic examples. If you want to book a ticket from Bangalore to Delhi, you should know the station codes (Bangalore happens to be SBC). On the brighter side, the site lets you type first few letters to get all the station names, which begin, with these alphabets. With technology, advancing fast the site should offer 'part match' and 'sounds like' matches.
People travel between Cities and not Stations: If you choose a metropolis say, Bombay as destination (i.e. BB as code) you will get trains terminating at Lokmanya Terminus and Bandra Terminus. Although, they are stations of the same city, they may confuse a novice or a traveler unfamiliar with the city. A simple format like "Bombay: Lokmanya Terminus" would avoid the confusion.

System should be smart: It should suggest alternatives, as the booking-window clerk does. For example if I do not find a train to say Bombay, the site can suggest another train which passes Kalyan (a neighboring station) without touching Bombay and a connection from Kalyan to Bombay (which may be a Suburban Transport)

Online Revenues
Worldwide, travel companies, banks, and airlines are going online to cut costs. They are also offering rebates for booking online. The cost of running businesses online is coming down. This happens because in the long term one saves on real estate and manpower costs. On the contrary, Indian Railways is one of the few sites charging a surcharge for delivery and use of credit card.Indian Railways can invest in a good personalization and customization engine/service. It can help in targeted advertising and additional revenues.A sizeable number of foreign tourists travel through Indian Railways. A separate section containing information on India, Popular Destinations, online reservations for Special trains like Palace on Wheels, Royal Orient etc, is needed. On the plus side, it contains information about their agents. Currently, the online booking for these trains is with TravBuzz. Railways can tie up with RTDC and integrate it with their online bookings.

Support the Unsaid Need
Any design attempt identifies the unsaid need. Lets say that the stated need is to Travel from Mumbai to New Delhi. Having experienced travel to unknown destination, we can deduce the unstated needs. Hence, the unstated need can be information on places of interest, transportation from station to city, pre-paid taxi stands, places to see which are around Delhi and 2-3 hours of Train travel (which means getting more business), dining and medical facilities onboard, preferred hotels/transport etc.

Communication and the Brand
An object should communicate its purpose just by looking at it. The word railways bring the image of a steam engine landscape rushing past comes to our mind. Most of us have grown up seeing the steam engine in the circle as the official railway logo. Remember them being embossed on the berths? Most of us as children have a fond memories of railway engines and train travel. The site does not cash on this factor. The site has the Mascot Bholu complete with a lantern and a green flag instead of the logo. How can a mascot take over the logo? To add to it, the CRIS logo is more prominent than the parent brand (Indian Railways).

Voice of the Site
The site should review its taxonomy and content. You see a link on top "Official Railway Website" and you wonder who's site have you been surfing all this while? (The link connects you to "Ministry of Railway" website). There are pleonasms like "Online Website" or the difficult ones like "New Query", "Vox Populi" which can simply be "Search Again" and "Comments and Feedback" respectively

Taking it further...
If railways decide to take this site a step further, they can consider incorporating customization in the site. Features, like saving my most frequented destination pair, day/night travel, class of travel and berth preferences. It is a good effort. Well begun but long way to go. After all, in e-years, it is circa 1853 and it is the first run from Bori Bunder to Thane. Bori Bunder, oh that's why the Bombay VT station code is BB.

Some links on Indian Railways
Indian Railways FAQs (Good resource on Indian Railways)
Indian Railways Sounds and Images
Train Web: Portal on Trains
National Rail Museum

This article was first published at the ZDNet website on May 20, 2003.