Review of the new Santander Cycles official app

One good headline feature, lots of missed opportunities & basic design mistakes …

Before we start, a full disclosure

  • When the London Cycle Hire scheme launched in 2010, I launched one of the first 3rd party iPhone apps around cycle hire, which I’ve been developing and maintaining ever since. Even though I make a small amount of money by selling this app on the App Store, it certainly hasn’t made me rich, nor is it likely to do so — it’s just a side project.
  • My day job involves designing websites & apps. I don’t generally like to critique other people’s work without knowing the context, but in this case I feel I understand enough having designed and built similar app.
  • I’ve only looked at the iPhone version of the app — but judging by the screenshots it looks like the Android app is designed in exactly the same way.
  • I love cycling, and I had high hopes for an official app that would really encourage people to use the cycle hire scheme.

Let’s think about who uses the app

An app designed for an “average user” is an app that works well for nobody. In design research, we often come up with personas: named profiles of typical users of a system coming from various angles. For the cycle hire scheme, some of these personas might be:

  • Charles the Commuter: he hires a bike almost every day to get to work from home (or from a train station) and vice-versa. He knows by heart which docking stations are close to his home & work, and on what times of day he’s likely to find bikes & spaces.
  • Irene the Infrequent Cyclist: she usually takes the tube and only hires a bike when she feels like — for example on a sunny day at the park, or to get home after the last tube.
  • Tom the Tourist: he’s in London for a couple of days only, has heard from friends that hiring a bike is a good way to see the sights, but knows nothing about how the scheme works. He does however have a few apps about London on his phone.

Task #1: Finding bikes & docks around you

For all of the above personas (even for Charles, when he’s in an unfamiliar area), the top thing they’ll want to do is find somewhere to hire or return a bike around them.

At first glance, it seems that the Santander Cycles app immediately gives all this information on the initial screen.

Home screen of Santander Cycles app

However, only 3 stations are shown by default — and I assume they’re the 3 nearest ones, measuring distance on a straight line.

First of all, this is of little use to people like Irene & Tom who might find themselves in an unfamiliar area where they don’t know the street names. They’d have to tap on each of the stations to see where it is and how to get there. If they tap on a station they get to see it on the map, but if it turns out it’s not convenient to get there, they have to go back and tap on another one.

Also, finding closest stations on a straight line distance in any complex urban environment like London, is simply not good enough. 100m on a straight line might mean walking or cycling 100m down the road or 200m going around a block or 300m going around an one-way system. And is it 100m going towards your destination, or going backwards? Not all equal distances are made equal.

Why straight line distances don’t work in a city

In the above example, 3 cycle hire docking stations are at an almost equal straight line distance from a central point. However the actual walking or cycling distance can be very different. On a map, this is immediately apparent. This is why in my own app I’ve always resisted showing “nearest stations” as a list without any context — the first screen is simply a map showing docking stations.

At least the official app has an obvious button to load the map …

How not to build a map-based app

Since touch-screen smartphones came out, maps have been one of the most most used features in them (even after Apple released their own built-in maps app, Google Maps still sits the top 20 free apps in the App Store). You can assume people are familiar enough with using their favourite maps app — and most of them look & behave the same. There’s a search bar on top, a button at the bottom to jump to your current location, and you can pan around or zoom to control what you see.

Unfortunately, the official Santander Cycles app unnecessarily breaks many of these conventions.

“Search results” view in the Santander Cycles app

The search box and the map are located on 2 different screens — which means more going back & forth if you decide to change your search.

The map itself takes only part of the screen — the rest repeats information already on the map, just in list format and without adding much value (especially since it’s hard to correlate between the list and the map).

Worst, scrolling around the map doesn’t show you docking stations in other areas — the only way to look for stations on a different area is to use the search. Poor Tom the Tourist is going to have a hard time — he has an overall idea of what London looks like on the map from his other apps, but he doesn’t know the names of all the places.

Surely you’ll get used to it after a while?

If things look a bit clunky already, spare a thought for Charles the Commuter. All he cares about are the few docking stations that are near his home & work. If there are no bikes or spaces available on either side, he’ll have to quickly think of a different way to get to work.

That’s why when I built my own app I made sure that people could mark their ‘favourite’ docking stations and easily view their status in the app, in the Today screen, and now also on an Apple Watch.

Viewing the status of your favourite docking stations in Cycle Hire App

Unfortunately, no such feature exists in the official Santander Cycles app, so frequent users like Charles would have to keep searching for the same locations every time they wanted to see a docking station.

A question of speed

When I first used the app I was surprised that it felt a bit slow. Every time I tapped on a button to move between screens, a little “please wait a moment” message is shown.

Progress indicator — a frequent sight in the Santander Cycles app

I was a bit surprised since I never had any issues with performance when building my own app. So I used a tool that allows me to take a peek behind the scenes and see when the app connects to the Internet and what data it downloads.

Turns out that every time you load a new screen the app has to download more data that tells it what to show (if you’re technically-minded you can see an example). This slows things down (especially on a slow connection), and is a waste of your battery power and data allowance.

My own app downloads the status of all docking stations at once, and never does this more frequently than once every minute, since bike availability data isn’t updated more frequently anyway. It will also remember this data for a couple of minutes, in case your connection is temporarily lost.

Is it just me moaning about all this?

Nope. Only a few hours after the app was released, more people realised some of the most obvious shortcomings.

Does the app do anything well?

Yes, the ability to ‘hire a bike’ (i.e. get a code to release a bike) on your phone instead of using the rather cumbersome docking station terminals is a rather welcome feature, especially for infrequent users like Tom & Irene. Frequent users like Charles will still find it much faster to use their dedicated cycle hire key.

Getting notified when your free hire period is about to end and when you successfully dock your bike is another plus. There are semi-regular complaints on Twitters from users being overcharged when they didn’t correctly docked their bike (or because the system didn’t register it?) so these notifications can help bring some peace of mind.

Finally, visualising bike availability on each dock in the shape of a “pie chart” is definitely the right way to see availability at a glance. I’ve been doing it for a while in my app (while other apps were using confusing colours and/or numbers), so it’s good to see the official app adopting the same scheme.

Why did this all happen — and what next?

It’s difficult to know looking from the outside why the app wasn’t designed as well as it could be. TfL has said that the app was developed in partnership with CoreThree — a company that appears to have a lot of expertise in building transport & mobile ticketing apps, but their website doesn’t talk about customer experience & design.

I don’t know who designed how the app should work, and whether any user feedback was sought — but I’ve sent a Freedom of Information Request to TfL to try and find out. I’ll also be sharing my feedback with them and hope they take at least some of it on board. If/when I hear anything back, I’ll update this page.

As for my own app, I’ll keep developing it for the foreseeable future. If you’ve tried it, I’d be happy to hear your feedback too!