The United Kindom, or Great Britain in this case, is well known for the oldest railway system in the world. Although facing numerous C R I S E S nowadays, it is still iconic and influential just like other great inventions from this country.
This year, I rotted through a white Christmas here alone redesigning the oldest train ticket with a pint of cider, which is, in terms of miserableness, British to the very last.
The journey of the UK train tickets
Train tickets can be more symbolic than people have realised, it’s the first ticket many visitors see after arriving in a new country. They represent the average expectation on public designs from the people, similar to banknotes in that regard.
This format is surprisingly well-thought for a design from more than 30 years ago – The APTIS (Accountancy and Passenger Ticket Issuing System) format ticket issued from 1986 to 2014 is highly readable with all relevant information carefully-organised, presented on the classic orange striped ticket face.
A punched APTIS ticket issued on 28/Apr/1989 in Newton-le-Willows (Credit: eBay)
Pre-2014 Design with APTIS format
The APTIS format is evidently beyond success, the grid layout allowed it to easily fit in new features and adapt to new technologies alone the evolution of railway system. It survived the privatisation of British rail and became the fundamental template for all ticket machine in Great Britain before 2014, such as FASTticket, ATOC XPress, and other railway ticket issuing systems. In fact, even after years of the introduction of 2014 National Rail ticket format, the APTIS-based design is still widely issued by machines and ticket offices throughout the UK.
An XPress ticket in APTIS format. Unlike the original APTIS ticket, all texts on this ticket are instantly (real-time) printed.
Despite its popularity and beloved layout, the APTIS format is far from flawless.
One critical issue is the lack of hierarchy of information, the arrangement of the ticket does not honour the differences among its entries. Destination Station appears to be in the same hierarchy level of Number of Minor Passengers, while the information such as Serial Number that is unhelpful to the journey displays among the important dates.
In addition to that, many keywords are shown in unintuitive abbreviation, casting the whole reading experience extremely unfriendly if not impossible.
Another problem with this design is the terrible accessibility for different target audiences, neither the traveller nor the conductor could rapidly extract the information they want as everything is blended together.
National Rail 2014 Design
In 2013, Department for Transport (DfT) published a report acknowledging the issues with previous APTIS design, deemed it to be complex and confusing. As the result, a fundamental redesign – known as National Rail 2014 Ticket – was introduced in the following year, promising a ‘cleaner, fresher and updated’ design for the UK train ticket. However, the piece they created seems like none of these. As ridiculous as it sounds, the new design did not address any of the issues despite repeatedly highlighting them in the report.
A National Rail 2014 ticket, contains the same amount of information.
Admittedly, the new design has taken out a handful of repeated or unrelated information and focus on what matters to a train journey. Additionally, although not shown in this example, it packs all reservations into one single ticket, whereas the previous format requires an extra ticket for each journey that was booked in advance. But all that weights a little against the significant flaws of this layout, almost every problem with the Pre-2014 Design is still there. It’s unbelievable that this is the outcome of a thorough investigation by the DfT, there are even fewer hierarchies of information, no font variation to categorise items, and the layout is absolutely a joke.
What worked on paper doesn’t work on ‘paper’
What happened to this 2014 remake is a story many designers have encountered, our work fell short of expectation when transferring from the screen onto the paper. Originally, the mind behind the makeover proposal – Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – delivered their design to the public that looked decent and indeed twisted well to meet the aforementioned objectives.
Top ten betrayal in the designing industry.
The mockup released in the government consultation is astonishingly neat, it is simple and precise just as their promise. It’s unfortunate they had printed out to be some abomination that holds no regard for rider experience. Apparently, the redesign was so obsessed with cleaner ticket that they did not attempt to organise nor categorise information on the ticket. As a result of poor layout and the absence of formatting guideline, the manufactures of ticket machines took the matter into their own hands.
Guess which version of the new version will you get for next journey?
So, depends on the manufacturer of the ticket machine, you might have to look at different font sizes, typefaces, locations, capitalisation rules, and descriptions just to find out the date of travel (Give it a try with the 3 examples above). The chaos in formatting has prevented passengers from swiftly getting the information they need, it now takes more than just a glance to find out a specific detail of journey. Combine with the fact that the pre-2014 format is still actively issued by many machines, the accessibility of the ticket is severely limited as key data can’t be efficiently extracted from the inconsistent layout.
To top it off, the supposedly industrial design failed to appreciate the current printing technology in-use, while the majority of tickets are still printed by the low-resolution thermal printer that creates matrix pattern, the redesign had boldly thrown in lines of text in tiny size. Senior citizens and people with visual difficulties might be having some hard times finding out where their reserved seat is.
Getting things back on track
It is not a piece of piss to work out a satisfactory design, the NR2014 remake had shown just that. That being said, we now know what not to do for a better, clearer, and more friendly ticket design.
There will be some limitations in the issuing system that we couldn’t change, and these limitations will be the baseline of our redesign. There will also be things that we try to accomplish, starting from what went wrong with the current design.
No play on words
Knowing the UK, many ticket machines are literally from the last century, they are so old that if they last few more years they might be listed together with their stations. Forget about the emojis and letters with åccént mãrk, we have to limit our printable items to the 128 characters from the ASCII table, with three extra characters: the pound sterling sign (£), the euro sign (€), and the dagger sign (†).
A good reference would be this test ticket above, which has all printable characters on it. It appears that in addition to the ACS-II letters, the machine can also handle inverted text (🅻🅴🆃🆃🅴🆁🆂), straight lines (┠─┐), bold font weight, and allow more than 3 font sizes.
It’s quite common to see a design went beyond what a printer could actualise, the bad practice can even be found in the NR2014 mockup presented by the RDG during government consultation, where they put down Arial font in the demonstration for matrix printers, built up the hype it could never meet in at least 30 years.
Keeping the information
We believe everything is on the ticket for a good reason, and it would be naïve to remove an item just because we do not understand its purpose. However, inconsistent information that changes from format to format will be considered as redundant and had their value reevaluated.
Since they went overkilled with the ‘no abbreviation’ feature in the last redesign, some items have become too wordy and we will attempt to fix them.
Universal format for all ticket types
There are two general layouts at the moment, one for Anytime journey and the another for Advance booking journey, the major difference is that seating and time reservation are printed on the advance tickets. It will be the greatest challenge for the redesign just to cater so many variations in one unified single layout.
Previously, the design had either used extra tickets for reservation information (APTIS style) or developed different formats to fit reservation information (NR2014). The short story was, if you want fewer tickets, you have to read harder because it’s hard to fit them all in.
My answer to the Grand Question
My UK train ticket redesign
When designing my solution, I had this mindset of ‘instantly usable’, that means any current ticket machine in the UK is capable of delivering this design without any upgrade. Same thermal printer, same orange cardstock, and same typographical demand for the software.
Like all public design delivering information, it’s straightforward to view but sophisticated to build. Let’s walk through the features onboard.
Rapid access to all stakeholders
Like I have pointed out in both APTIS and NR2014 design, there was a lack of concern of target audience, they always require more than just a glance because the information is not grouped by the type of reader. It’s fixed as we have grouped information by the ‘stakeholders’ – people that read with different objectives.
Not only are items categorised, different ticket types are now structured the same way. Readers will be quickly shaped and habituated with the layout, an expectation of information will be unconsciously formed, so they will automatically start with the allocated area when glancing a ticket in the future.
One ticket format to rule them all
Being a former web designer, I learnt all about edge cases the hard way, the cruel experience really enables me to be practical about my designs. Don’t just think differently, think about differences.
The railway system in Great Britain is full of lore just like the country invented it, with all sort of possible extremes and special needs on the ticket, extensive research was carried out to make sure the format could cope with all wacky edge cases.
Visualise with non-graphical stimuli
Visual aid is a great way to speed up information process, the top-down mechanism of the brain prioritise symbols and geometrics over words. Applying visual distinctions is also a shortcut to establishing the hierarchy of information.
With only ASCII character set at disposal, my hands are tight, but I found just a way to make the best out of them.
In addition to text styles and ideographic symbol, I placed emphasis on the geometric location between different items. Such as putting ‘Origin station’ horizontal to the ‘Destination station’ and therefore simulate train’s horizon movement from one point to another. The benefit of doing that is forcing different ticket issuing systems to comply with a basic layout, such that when other means of visualisation had failed (like we saw in the NR2014 ticket), this could act like a fallback to hold the basic structure.
Recode and rephrase
In the NR2014 redesign, issue of over abbreviations was tackled to avoid confusion. This is definitely a welcomed move, but they rather went to another extreme and made everything out of a complete sentence. This part explained how have we dialled it back to the sweet point.
Some of the features that used to prevent fraudulent alternation are discarded in the NR2014 design, such as the asterisk (*) that used to end station names is no longer printed, even when there is space and possible station for the destination to be changed.
We had honoured this move and took a step further by changing back the unconventional month abbreviations (JNR, FBY, MCH, JLY, DMR) since the purpose of using them was also to prevent alternation, non-standard abbreviation could be even more confusing than over-abbreviated terms.
Plus, fare dodgers these days don’t even touch the real ticket, everyone has access to the internet and a perfectly functioning printer. It’s time to throw away the concept from the 70s and embrace the dark future.