Murder on the IA Express

This is only a design exercise meant to show a possible evolution of train ticketing in Romania, showed as an example at World IA Day 2013 in Bucharest. There is no contractual relationship between Grapefruit and CFR or the Ministry of Transportation. It wouldn't have been so much fun!

This is only a design exercise meant to show a possible evolution of train ticketing in Romania, showed as an example at World IA Day 2013 in Bucharest. There is no contractual relationship between Grapefruit and CFR or the Ministry of Transportation. It wouldn’t have been so much fun!

CFR Călători is the state-owned rail travel company, dominating this market. We all travel a lot, many times by train. While the service is acceptable, it’s not always convenient to go to the rail station to buy tickets; the online ticketing option is even more painful and frustrating than actually staying in line, freezing to death, on a winter night. It is the kind of technical solution designed by engineers for engineers, and with little concern to usability or business objectives.

An overcomplicated and unattractive user interface makes most users  give up (we’ve heard this complaint from many of our friends who tried to purchase tickets online). If you want to start searching for tickets, you must have an account and login first; most important information is scattered around and badly organized; and the layout changes from one step to another which can be really confusing for users. And if out of curiosity we dare switching browser windows, the bad enough experience turns into a nightmare.

Why, why, why?

We’ve always wanted to have the opportunity to redesign such a frustrating experience. Unfortunately, it’s not one of CFR’s main business priorities. Fortunately, World IA Day 2013, an upcoming event for user experience (UX) designers and information architects presented itself as an opportunity to showcase our process and design thinking.

Our challenge was to create a new and improved version, and show to our peers how we work. The concept that resulted is meant to solve a part of our frustrations, by delivering a simpler, more satisfying experience to travelers like us.

Out of the office, into the railway station

Research in our own backyard (or office) can be limitative. We know you can design a good application, if you heal your own pain, but we wanted to make sure were not biased by our own view of the problem, and that what we were about to start building would be useful for others too.

We went to the rail station and talked to people waiting in line to buy tickets. The few of them who seemed to be part of the those 50% of Romanians who do use Internet. We talked to rail station cashiers, to our friends who traveled just like us, and to other colleagues who had a history of buying the tickets online.

As a result, two different personas started to take shape—Andrei and Cătălina.

Andrei Crăciun is a 22-year old average student born in Bacău, but studies Cybernetics in Bucharest. He has to travel back home once a month to visit his noisy family consisting of father, mother, two twin sisters and one little brother. Besides his family, he also travels to Buzau to meet with his high-school sweetheart, Clara. Not having his own car, he is forced to travel by train. For some unknown reason he hates traveling by bus. He earns 1500 Lei each month. Well, earning may be an overstatement as half of the money he gets come from designing flyers and posters for parties, while the other half is an unconditional allowance given by his parents. He does not get a scholarship, so he travels with the cheapest train tickets.

He buys stuff online, because he’s too lazy to shop in malls; still, he only pays cash on delivery to be sure he won’t get unpleasant surprises. He also spends a lot of time on Facebook, checking it at least twice every hour when he’s awake; he downloads stuff from Pirate Bay and uses online streaming services to watch ‘Breaking Bad’, his favorite TV series. Andrei owns an HTC Sense smartphone, which helps him not only entertain his Facebook addiction, but also listen to his favorite Dubstep & DnB bands.

His goals are to get on time at the train station every time he commutes (remember, he’s lazy) and to get the best seats he can afford. His major pains reflect frustrations of refunding tickets, when he gets too late to the station or his travel plans change. He always buys tickets because he got caught in the past for free-riding by train.

Cătălina Mihai is a 30-year old office assistant at a local construction firm from Timișoara, married without children. She has a BSc degree from the University in Timișoara and lives with her husband, Viorel. She doesn’t travel by train, mostly because she’s the happy owner of a white Skoda Fabia. But, at least once every two weeks, she has to purchase tickets for the construction team working at her firm. She sends workers, engineers and managers all over the country, wherever the projects are located.

She works on an outdated desktop computer using Internet Explorer 7. She manages to spend some time at work on email, YouTube, (news website), and shops online from She cannot escape spends some reasonable time on Facebook, chatting with her girlfriends and liking irrelevant posts from her friends. She stays connected using her burgundy Nokia E71.

Given her working environment, she’s always on the run, so she prefers Facebook to small talk. Somehow she still manages to have some free time to listen to radio or  watch a funny movie on cable TV.

Her goals are to assure that everyone gets on the right train to the right location, and doing that quickly, fast and easy. She always hoping she buys the right tickets—it would be a disaster,  if her boss would have to travel by coach, and the newest, while the least qualified worker would feel comfortable on a soft bed in first class. Managing payments for tickets and the risk of asking a reimbursement are also part of her monthly pack of concerns,when she needs to handover the expense reports to the firm’s accountant.

Journeys on the whiteboard

As you can see in the whiteboard sketches, we had fun working at the two main user journeys. Andrei was trying to buy a return ticket to go visit his parents, while Cătălina was asked by her CEO to buy tickets for a whole mixed team made of company workers and managers.

With the user journeys up and ready, we build the basic skeleton for our concept, using Axure RP as our main prototyping tool. We first sketched basic content and functionality blocks, trying to look at the user journey rather than copy familiar patterns which we were used to. To be more specific, we did buy flight tickets before, but this is pretty different experience. Then we added an extra layer of detail, refining elements like the search form, the results, payment form and other things. All these were done by our design team (Alecsandru Grigoriu, Alexandru Cahniță, Marius Ursache) during an internal hackathon weekend.  We took full advantage of Axure RP’s advanced features, mainly the collaborative part using a SVN repository.


Making things nice and easy

We’ve kept only the essentials on the homepage, and decided we won’t ask users to register or login to search for tickets as happening with the current interface. There are limited promotions (and targeted for user needs) and the focus is on the main reason the user is here: he (or she) wants a train ticket.

The search results contain clear and crisp information: routes, prices and available options. You can then refine your search, as each route has its own details and options to select from. You want a specific bed bunk? Or a window seat? Or to have WiFi during your trip (if you’re on a lucky route)? Or to take your bike with you? We’ve got all these covered without overloading the user interface with useless details. A good interface is made for the least experienced users and with advanced options for those who like them.


Redefining the payment experience

We’ve always wanted to approach online payments differently. For one instance, we don’t get why you should enter your card type (Visa, Mastercard etc.), if this can be automatically extracted  from the card number.

With the upcoming launch of even a flat Apple iOS, skeuomorphic design is condemned today, but we believe it can be a powerful tool when you want to get users comfortable with a less popular feature—paying online with credit card in Romania accounts for less than 10% of the online transactions.

We decided to have a modern skeuomorphic approach which would allow users to easily enter their credit card details without getting confused or lost in the process.

Update: we were jealous later to find out that Ken Keiter had the same idea and even carried it forward by making the skeuocard code available for anyone to use, under a MIT license.


Now go travel

Once you’ve paid, you can choose how you want your ticket delivered. You can either print it, download it as an Adobe PDF file, get it directly on your mobile phone by scanning a QR code, or even as an iOS Passbook.


Showing off in style

We introduced the redesign and process at World IA Day 2013 Bucharest, on February 9, 2013. It was the highlight of the event and it benefited the longest Q&A session. We’ve received a lot of valuable feedback, that we’ll probably use in a future iteration. We also got a lot of buzz in social media and blogs.

‘When are you going to CFR to convince them to implement it’?’ was  the most frequently asked question of the whole session.


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