Scotrail journey alerts: a study in bad usability

Five simple lessons for Scotrail, and anyone providing any kind of service to anyone.

A few months ago, I moved out of the city. After brief flirtation with driving in and out, I decided to take the train. I prefer taking the train; it’s better for the world, less stressful, and I get to sit on the train and write blogs.

The downside is that trains can be delayed or cancelled, so I was pretty pleased to find out that First Scotrail offer a service to let you know about these issues ahead of time. I thought that sounded brilliant.

However, I have become progressively more frustrated with this service, and have been inspired to share some basic truths with Scotrail, and anyone else.

1: Don’t ask what you don’t need to know. Signing up should be easy.

The unintelligible signup form
The full sign up form – remember this is *before* they’ve asked for what kind of alerts I might want.

First step in signing up was to create an account. Fine. I suppose they’ll need my email address, phone number, and details of what alerts I’d like.

Apparently, they also needed my full name, age, gender (which for some reason defaulted to male), leisure interests, and purpose of travel. These are all *mandatory* fields before you can sign up. They also asked for my full address, though this wasn’t mandatory.

Are some trains cancelled only for women?

Do some signalling difficulties only affect those ages 29-37?

Will some delays only affect people who enjoy football?

After reluctantly completing this form, I had to wait for a confirmation email before continuing.

I was then confronted with the following screen. I don’t even know where to start on how confusing this form is. Suffice it to say that I did not receive the alerts I expected.


2: Other people do not understand your internal acronyms and processes

I signed up for this service during my lunchbreak at work, and didn’t think about the fact that I’d need to verify my number for text alerts, which in itself is fair enough.

However, I didn’t check my phone until the end of the day, when I saw a text from ‘fsralert’, asking me to text ‘Alert Me’ to 61161. Having no idea what that might be, I presumed it was spam, trying to trick me into signing up for something. I was just about to delete it, when I put 2 and 37 together and realised what it was.

I reread it yet again and realised that this was again going to be a complicated process. No simple ‘Reply ‘yes’ to this message’. I had to go in to compose a new message, sounding more like the Harry Potter spell I was desperately starting to need, to a new number, before finally completing the sign up process.

3: Emails should make sense (and be proofread)

Having signed up, they send me information about the latest updates. I have no idea what these updates are.

19-03-2013 18-59-23

My what account?

I also got a text message to tell me that I could log into my jcheck account and click on the update me by field. I still have no idea what it means.

4: If we don’t need to know, don’t tell us

Now I’ve successfully signed up, there’s no way I’ll forget it. I get at least two texts and emails a day, letting me know that EVERYTHING IS FINE.

19-03-2013 19-59-13

Ok, that’s not strictly true. Sometimes I also get another couple telling me there’s a delay (often in addition to the emails telling me everything’s fine), and to be scrupulously fair, the email subjects are pretty clear. Still, why tell me everything’s ok?

I should be grateful that the potential effects of this aren’t too bad though. My boss tells me that bad usability of this kind once led to many deaths – a nuclear reactor alert system told people so often that everything was fine, that no-one realised when the alert changed.

5: Late information is useless information

Finally, today, I got an email telling me that the train I’d normally take was cancelled (or as fsralerts put it, ‘your train will not stop at your destination’). Seems like it may finally be worth it.

Or it would have been, if the email hadn’t been sent ten minutes after the train was supposed to leave.
19-03-2013 18-51-26

I have yet to unsubscribe from fsralerts. Unfortunately, the offchance this might one day be useful makes me stay. I have no other choice.

But having the market cornered is no excuse for this kind of thing.

One thought on “Scotrail journey alerts: a study in bad usability

  1. I should have also mentioned that the daily ‘EVERYTHING’S FINE’ emails are one of the worst examples of web writing I’ve ever seen, containing random line breaks, the classic redundancy ‘It should be noted that’ and long waffly language. Full email text is below.

    If they really must send this email, and can’t make the process easier, what they mean is:

    “There are no know disruptions at the moment.

    Last minute delays or short notice changes might still happen. We cannot guarantee knowing about all changes, so please don’t use this service as a journey planner.

    Please don’t reply to this email. If you’d like to amend or unsubscribe from alerts, log in to your account at

    There are no disruptions reported at this time affecting services between your selected stations Edinburgh to Burntisland.

    (It should be noted that this service is provided to indicate general disruption along the route as well as delays and alterations specific
    to services that are planned to operate during the times that you have selected. Problems occurring immediately before despatch of this email
    may not yet have been reported to the system and whilst the best possible prediction is made relating to future delays and alterations, these
    may change due to unforeseen circumstances. There may also have been short notice changes to the planned train services which have not been
    notified to the system and therefore this alerting service must NOT be used as a journey planner to indicate the train service between any
    two points. For further information on disruption to services log on to

    This e-mail has been sent from an un-monitored email address that cannot accept incoming e-mail. Please do not reply to this message.

    To unsubscribe from this service, log in to your user account on the website at
    and click Remove Me at the bottom of the My Details page.

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