After BBC Connected Studio – gazing through a moving window

Regular readers will know that I have a slow hunch about the value of stories in the place where they happened. So when I saw the brief for the latest BBC Connected Studio, focused on Knowledge and Learning, I packed my personal hobbyhorse and jumped on the train to Salford.

It was an ace day. Credit to the BBC for being so generous with their experts’ time and open about their exciting plans for the digital Knowledge and Learning product. The plan – going from a portfolio of bespoke programme sites and siloed services to a single product to fuel everyone’s curiosity – has a lot in common with the bigger transformation underway over at gov.uk.

Having shared my passion for situated stories and the narrative capital they engender in communities, I found myself in a team that wanted to put a “local lens” on the wealth of learning material that the BBC has amassed over the years.

I’m always surprised and humbled when I get the chance to explore early stage ideas with potential users, so the 15 minute audience we had with three regular BBC users was a particular highlight for me.

And on the tram back to Piccadilly I fell to thinking a bit further about a second strand that our team discussed but sadly didn’t pitch, which was centred around journeys and ways of cultivating curiosity while being a passenger.

There’s a piece of dead time, especially for children, when they’re going on a journey. It could be a short bus trip into town, hours in the car on the way to the seaside or going on a plane on holiday. Parents always struggle to keep their children entertained and settled, and if you look at families travelling together on trains it’s almost always the kids who have control of the family iPad. Often they’ll have headphones on, lost in a DVD, not paying attention to their surroundings at all. That seems a shame.

So this idea aims to give people information to enhance but not overwhelm the experience of being somewhere. It strings moments of learning together into a personalised journey, linking multiple Knowledge and Learning topics along the route. They could be places of interest, famous people from an area, or even time or season-specific things like looking out of the car window at the night sky or noticing cloud patters or migrating birds.

Augmented reality it’s not, quite. As Kevin Slavin noted at dConstruct a couple of years ago, Reality is Plenty. These judiciously timed nudges are intended to draw us back into the here and now, to rediscover the quaint old habit of gazing out of windows when travelling.

So I spent the rest of my journey home knocking up a Keynote prototype.

By a happy coincidence, the following morning, I happened to be booked on the 0715 from Leeds to London with my children (they for a day out with their grandparents, I to The Story, on which a post follows soon.)

Here’s my son having a go…

User testing on the 0715 to London

From this initial user test of one, I learned just how engrossing a glowing rectangle can be to a six-year-old. He played along for the first two or three stops, before becoming hooked on Angry Birds instead. To rouse the youth from their digital dreamspace, the next version of the app would need to pause play on whatever else they were doing, with the guarantee that they could come back to it after a few minutes looking out of the window.

The service would use location, but only lightly, knowing the nearest town would be good enough. And because the route gives us a predictable narrative spine, content could be packaged up and pre-loaded on users’ devices. (In feedback, users told us that they didn’t always have, or want to use, data while out and about.)

In terms of build, it could be developed iteratively, starting with a highly editorially curated version along a few major routes – say the West Coast Mainline and the M1 motorway, then scaled up by adding more routes and software to create personalised journeys on the fly according to the user’s travel plans and content interests.

Seen it before? What would make it better? All feedback gratefully received.

If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

Continue reading

Gee Any Arghh

News that GNER, my financially-challenged intercity train operator, has just achieved a Charter Mark for excellence in customer service, has prompted me to reflect on a peculiar scene that’s played out nearly every time I travel with them. There are many things I love about travelling GNER compared to other UK rail operators [if anyone from the company is reading this, rest assured, I only write it because I care :) ] but the exchange I hate to hear goes like this:

Guard to customer: That ticket’s not valid on this train, you’ll have to pay to upgrade it.

Customer: But no one told me that when I bought the ticket at the station/on the internet/wherever.

Guard: I don’t know what you were told then, but I did make an announcement before the train left the station that these tickets were not valid. That’ll be [insert amount between £30 and £70] .

Customer: How much? That’s ridiculous. I was told this ticket would be valid.

…and so on in variations depending on the respective cantankerousness-es of guard and customer.

Now I know there are people who will always try it on, hoping to get away with travelling at peak times with a saver and so on. And sometimes my schadenfreude gets the better of me and I quite enjoy listening to a good argument from the comfort of my wifi-enabled seat. But I can’t help feeling that the train company is doing itself no favours.

The process seems to be broken in a number of ways:

  1. Aside from being expensive, the fares themselves are bizarre and highly complex. There are 189 different ticket types offered when buying online. I Am Not Making This Up.
  2. The problem often seems to stem from restrictions on the use of a Saver, which do not apply to another ticket-type, called a “Business Saver” – many of the people caught out are not businesspeople and would have no reason to think a Business Saver was the right ticket for them.
  3. When making announcements, GNER guards speak a quaint language of yesteryear in which the refreshment trolley “makes its way through Standard Class” and mobile phone conversations “must be confined to the vestibules” (that’s the bit between the carriages, apparently). Deciphering these announcements is a special skill only acquired over countless journeys north and south.
  4. In any case, it’s a bit much to tell people which of the 189 ticket types are valid when they’ve just struggled aboard with their luggage and the train is about to depart. Returning to the booking office to change a ticket at this stage would certainly mean missing the train.
  5. If your ticket is not valid, the Guard can only upgrade you to a full-priced standard ticket. (And you won’t get much change from £100 to travel less than a quarter of the way up our small island. Double that for a return.)

This is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I do the maths in my head to get back to sleep. Disclaimer – all the numbers are my rough guesses, at round numbers to make for simpler sums, though I reckon I could be a factor of 10 out on any of them and still have a valid case.

Let’s assume they catch one customer with the wrong ticket in each of the five second (sorry, standard) class carriages on 10 peak-time trains a day, charging an average of £50 per miscreant. That’s £2500 a day, $12,500 a week, £625,000 a year. Every penny counts when you have to pay the Government £1.3 billion for the right to run trains while your new competitor gets a free ride.

But now look at the customer experience impact. That’s 12,500 customers made to feel like criminals in front of a carriage-load of passengers. Let’s imagine each of them retells their story to three friends or relatives – adding in that word of mouth effect gives us a total of 50,000 people with a negative perception of this company.

And then there are all the people on the train who witness the scene, some of them, like me, repeatedlty. Roughly 50 people per carriage, so for every extra pound raised, there’s a customer whose journey is disrupted by an uncomfortable exchange of words and a brutal reminder of the fragmented and chaotic nature of our railway system.

Depending on our assumption about repeat use of the rail route that could be 625,000 people who witness my vignette once in a year or 62,500 who hear it 10 times each on average. You decide which scenario is worse from an image point of view.

Taken together we have at least 100,000 people who have either been stung by this ticketing confusion, or know someone who has been, or have sat on a train and listened to GNER staff enforcing the policy. Maybe it seems the right thing to do on paper but from where I’m sitting I wonder what could it be worth to the bottom line if those people had a good experience instead?

the space between the tracks

Remember the old story about the plan to sell ads on vinyl records in the gaps between the tracks? It never happened because the crackly silence turned out to be an essential part of the LP experience. I’m on a train with the world’s information sliced and diced into 500 pixels in my hand. But looking out of the window is still the most rewarding option.

The first Great Western

From Simon Thurley’s fascinating Buildings That Shaped Britain we learn that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had only once travelled on a train when he designed the gloriously non-standard Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol.

Now that, for good or ill, is the difference between innovation and design.