The power of PowerPoint

Lately, it seems like as if every day I’ve been reading an article on the rail network that makes me want to laugh in a very loud and uncharacteristic way. I initially wanted to keep a biweekly schedule of posts, but with all the news coming out at this pace and me being a very opinionated person, I might as well just write whatever comes to mind.

Today’s circus act:

In short, the article criticizes the UX failings of the STARIS 2.0 units mounted on the new C151B trains. Those are not without merit, of course. For lack of a better word, those screens are cancer. Most of what I want to say has been reflected in that article, so you can go read that and come back later.

Back in April, I was invited by SMRT to the launch of the first C151B trainset on the 16th of April. Set 601/602 featured a preview of the new system. We were told it was a preview. Improvements would be made in due course, apparently.

Two and a half months later, has anything changed?

Just another day with SMRT

Unfortunately, no. The screens are still cancer.

Yes, these things run on Android. (photo: me)

I happened to see this on my way home a few days ago (ignore the artifacting, that’s just a side effect of taking a picture of the LCD screen). In the entire train car, only this screen was the one that had errored out and returned to a suspiciously familiar home screen. Yes, that’s the home screen of the kind of cheap Chinese off-brand Android tablet. Kudos to SMRT, of course, they at least bothered to remove the factory default icons.

No, this means the displays aren’t really synchronized at all. They’re just working on independent video loops, with appropriate instructions being passed from the controller in the driver’s cab to move to the next video in the playlist. It might have worked with the old flashing lights (and the same controller is used for both), but it won’t work very well here.

The TechInAsia article mentioned that the videos don’t exactly show the full system map, and only a few stations at a time. In my opinion, there’s no need to, when there’s a hardcopy of the system map pasted on the wall a stone’s throw away. It’s not that big, of course, but it’s there. If you want a bigger one, look up above the windows.

Also, the Japanese screens also only show a few stations at a time. But here’s the catcher — they actually tell you how long it will take before the train reaches a certain station. Here’s one from Wikipedia, notice the numbers inside the circles:

Focus on the screen to the right (photo: Wikipedia)

The article also mentioned that in Japan, the screens are at least time- and location-aware and can tell you where you are on the train, as well as providing more contextual info with regard to the placing of lifts and stairs. Not in SMRT, because the screens don’t even know where they themselves are. To make 6 different videos for every car on the train is hard work, you know.

And I think TechInAsia has said enough on the choice of visual styles, fonts, and transitions. Some poor intern was likely asked to cook it up quickly in PowerPoint. My condolences to the poor fellow.

EDIT: I came across another blog defending some of SMRT’s design choices, and there’s just one bit I’d like to talk about. Even the Japanese don’t tell you where the exits are, they just tell you how to get down to the concourse, where there are maps that you can use to figure out where you want to go from there. Singapore is learning, though, you can find one such map at the DTL concourse level of Little India station.

This, of course, reeks of SMRT being lazy, and just doing a few MSPaint tricks on the detailed station diagrams they have on file. I do like how the MTR does it though — cutting out all extraneous stuff and leaving just what’s important for the viewer:

We’re working on it, they said

I couldn’t resist quoting everyone’s favourite meme when it comes to SMRT. But I don’t think that’s enough, so of course it’s time for the suggestions corner.

According to the very informative SGTrains website, sometime in 2012 or 2013, the first STARIS2 tests began on trainset 321/322. I don’t remember any reports of it being used in revenue service, so they must have had plenty of time to refine the system, maybe even redesign some aspects of the controller to make more sense. But no!

Firstly, any computing student would tell you that the benefit of having a master computer (per car) output to a whole lot of screens would be easier to maintain and use. But when each screen is an independent unit in itself and it’s just listening for signals, it’s a whole lot of moving parts that one would consider best practices to avoid. Or you get odd failures like my first photo.

Secondly, the Japanese also use their screens to tell people about disruptions on whatever part of the network, including sections not run by the railway company that manages the section of line you’re on. But as I mentioned in my previous post, SMRT’s Twitter doesn’t even have this information, so how would you expect the train itself to know if something was wrong?

Thirdly, as the article rightly points out, they need to hire a design firm. Or at least, get some interns with knowledge about proper user experience and who knows how to use fonts and transitions properly. And of course, either get permission from LTA to use the LTA Identity font, or use the graphically similar Ocean Sans font.

Fourthly, they need to stop using PowerPoint and get some proper graphics drawn. Maybe some flat design aesthetics might help?

Right, that’s all I can think of for now.

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