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23 December, 2005

This is my stop! Let me out!

Intercity train doors are now opened by pressing an adjacent circular button.  The button is inactive until the train is at a complete standstill; unless the button is illuminated, it's inactive.  That makes sense – if one knows.

The latest generation of carriages are generally considerably higher than platform level, so a step is required. Presumably for streamlining, this is drawn into the body of the carriage whilst in motion. When one presses the button, the step has to be extended before the door opens. Surprisingly, it doesn't snap out instantly, kneecapping little old ladies; instead, it emerges rather slower, taking a few seconds.
That's fine if one is attempting to board the train, as one can see the step. When attempting to disembark, however, one presses the button, and nothing appears to happen. I've often seen people pressing the button repeatedly before it's activated at all, then pounding it in alarm when it seems the door isn't going to open at all.

I noticed this evening that in announcing imminent stops over the PA, the conductor explained how to operate the doors. Before every stop.
Doesn't that suggest a slight usability problem? If one knows what's happening, it's absolutely fine, but first-time passengers shouldn't face a learning curve or need instruction simply to get out at the end of their journeys.


Still beats having to slide down the window, and using the outside door handle to open the door.

Things like this are OK for regular train users, but I'm sure they confuse the hell out of those people who use the train one or twice a year.

Posted by Tim Hall at December 23, 2005 10:27 PM

There are several signs around the place telling you to expect a couple of seconds wait for the step outside.

Anyway, things beep and flash when you hit the button. Telling you something is happening. I've never seen anyone hit the button in alarm.

Posted by cds at December 24, 2005 10:57 AM

Tim: That's kind of the point. The interface ought to be perfectly obvious, or at least intuitive, from the very first time it's encountered. If the user has to learn, or be told, the designer has failed.

cds: Yep, alarm visible (audible, too) concern that the door might be broken, that they're not going to get off the train before it leaves the station, and that they're going to be stranded in Carlisle, or wherever.

Besides; who reads the notices? It should just work, and shouldn't need to be explained!

Posted by NRT at December 24, 2005 06:09 PM

How about a flashing 'Please wait..' sign and an audible noise that indicates that something is happening?

Posted by Neil T. at December 25, 2005 12:46 PM

The same door-opening mechanism has been used on Tyneside Metro for 30 years. I don't recall anyone reporting any usability problems.

Posted by Jeff Rollin at December 28, 2005 07:26 PM

The Tyneside Metro has had retracting steps for 30 years? If not, we're not talking about the same thing. I don't simply mean button-operated doors, nor buttons inactive until the train stops. I haven't used the Metro for 4-5 years, but I definitely don't remember there being a 5-6 second wait between pressing the button and the door even beginning to respond.

Perhaps I've been unclear: I'm not suggesting the Intercity mechanism is totally unusable. The door opens, so it meets the bare minimum standard of adequate design. However, good design of something so fundamental as a door should be so simple as to be unobtrusive: push button, door opens; no delay or complications. The user shouldn't have to think, never mind require instruction.

Remember that someone consciously designed the mechanism, and chose to impose the step delay. I feel that was a poor decision. I'd have designed it so that as the train decelerates into the station, all steps on the platform side are extended. Then, once the train stops and the door buttons are engaged, the doors can open immediately. The passengers needn't even be aware that the steps retract.
Thing is, I think the step was deliberately designed to emerge in front of embarking passengers, impressing them with a high-tech gimmick whilst inadvertently diminishing the overall user experience; one-off presentation over long-term functionality.

I agree that signage, lights and audible warnings would help the situation, but the situation shouldn't have arisen in the first place.

Posted by NRT at December 29, 2005 04:50 PM
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