Tom Voirol
Jul 18, 2013

Five great ways to frustrate millions of commuters

Why Singapore's TransitLink website is a rich case study for poor user experience.

How to frustrate users in five easy steps
How to frustrate users in five easy steps

TransitLink, an organisation that almost every Singaporean has dealings with at some point, launched a new website last year. It replaced a tired 1990s-style interface with a rich, animated image of a bus stop, complete with ticket office, commuters, billboards, a Merlion, and the occasional bird flying past.

Unfortunately, this playful new interface is a case study in how not to design a website. It can be read as a manual for making people’s online lives difficult.

So let us take a closer look at the TransitLink website and count the ways this site throws obstacles in its users’ path. Follow its lead and you too will make it delightfully hard for people to achieve what they came to your website for.

1. Use your own jargon

We’ve spent a lot of time and effort coming up with brand names for your services like “E-Guide”, “H2G Journey Planner” and “TL Guide”. It’s only fair that every Singaporean learns and remembers what they mean and how they differ from one another.

No point in just calling them “Fare calculator”, “Journey planner”, and “Printed guide”, respectively. That would be too obvious and boring.

2. Mimic the real world

We've all gotten so used to how the physical world works that we’ll want to carry all its shortcomings over into the digital space. Let’s cram all the relevant links into 15 per cent of the screen and use the remainder for decoration. After all, it worked so well for the ragingly successful Microsoft Bob.

Microsoft Bob, an early example of using real-world metaphors in the digital world

Having used up most of the screen for non-functional visual garnish isn’t necessarily a problem. We can always place our important messages on tiny rotating banners. People will surely wait for the one they just missed to come around again.

3. Toy with people

Keep suspense alive by having people figure out what element of the interface does what. According to Wikipedia, Mystery Meat Navigation "emphasises aesthetic appearance, white space, and the concealment of relevant information over basic practicality and functionality."

Some may think making the user hover over every icon in turn to find out what it does is unnecessary and frustrating. We think it’s allowing them to play an entertaining game of "Where was the fare information again?", every time they visit the site.

4. Neglect mobile users

Using Flash for the main functionality of the homepage is a great way to add oomph to the site. Hardly anyone will use a transit-related website on the go, and when they do, they’ll just have to zoom and pan around a bit to find what they came for. Singapore buses are such smooth rides that the tiny text will still be legible.

5. Make unreasonable requests

Having such a visually engaging website obviously means that visitors will need to use specific technology to access it. To ensure they do, let’s ask them to use specific versions of browsers. They won’t mind waiting with their application for a concession card until they have found out what a browser is, and downloaded and installed one.

How to avoid bad user experience

Of course, nobody is implying that TransitLink set out to create a bad experience for users. There is no doubt the organisation meant well and aimed to do the right thing by Singaporeans. How then could it go so wrong?

User experience disasters happen when organisations and their web design agencies focus on visual decoration and pizzazz, rather than on what the visitors to their site actually need to accomplish.

The best websites are those that let you do what you came for without getting in the way. Think about how smooth and unobtrusive the search experience is on Google, how easy it is to find directions on, how quickly you can find the right mobile plan on Singtel.

Public transport websites can be simple and inviting.

They have all worked out the most likely needs on the minds of their visitors and placed those prominently, centrally and easily accessible on the homepage of their respective websites. Labels are clear and simple and buttons do what they say.

And before you complain that this is impossible to achieve for public service sites, take a look at Sydney’s Opal Card.

To create a great user experience, organisations need to put the user at the centre of what they do. This means that they first need to truly understand their audiences. A little research goes a long way here.

While designing and building websites, prototyping and testing early and often, preferably with actual users from the intended audiences, ensures that the final product actually meets their needs.

As with any endeavour, it is best to learn from what others have done. To help with this, the Infocomm Development Authority in collaboration with Reading Room has created a comprehensive resource on user experience that should help ensure that future government website revamps truly are state of the art—not just statements of art.

Tom Voirol is global head of user engagement at Reading Room.

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