The Oystercard website – exposing the underbelly of your technology is not necessarily what’s best for your users

Published on 17 May 2011 in , , , , , , , ,

What with me leaving the BBC in June for pastures as yet unknown, I decided it wasn’t really worth me renewing my annual travelcard. In its place I entered the world of Oyster pre-pay.

Train leaving Fulham Broadway.

I’ve used Pre-pay before for the odd journey out of my normal zones, but never used it for day to day travelling. And of the consquences of moving to pre-pay is that all of a sudden I’m aware of the cost of moving around London. My commutes via Zone 1 are £2.90 a pop. A bus fare is £1.30. And if I manage to leave work before 4pm or after seven, I can save 50 whole new pence.

And I’ve learned that the Oystercard website is quite bad for tracking all this stuff – a fact that amazes me.

The Oyster Online website, you can view a journey history which shows all the pay as you go journeys you’ve made in the last month. It will show you where you touched in, where you touched out. It will show you your balance on each occasion. But what it doesn’t actually show you is the fare you paid for your tube or train journey.

Instead it tells you what was deducted from your card when you entered the gates, and what was refunded back to your card when you existed.

A snapshot of my recent Oystercard usage

A snapshot of my Oystercard usage, taken from the Oyster website

If you’re a bit confused by that statement, let me explain. To use a train, tube or DLR you need to buy a valid ticket before boarding. You’ll find that hidden in the exciting conditions of carriage documents published by National Rail and Transport for London.

So what happens when you touch in using Oyster prepay at a train, tube or DLR station is that you’re charged a flat fare. In peak times on London Underground this seems to be £6.50 which is fifty pence more than the cost of a journey from Zone 1 to Zone 9.

When you leave the station at the end of your journey, you get a refund depending on how long your journey is. So when I touch in at Colliers Wood in Zone 3 my card is charged £6.50, and when I get off at White City in Zone 2 (having travelled through zone 1) I get a refund of £3.60. And if I forget to touch out, I don’t get any refund.

Not that I need to know or care about all this. All I care about is that my fare was £2.90. The ticket gate tells me I’ve spent £2.90. The ticket machine at the station will tell me I’ve spent £2.90. I have spent £2.90.

But instead the Oyster website tells me I’ve had a charge and a refund. For some reason they’ve decided that, rather than show the user something useful and simple, they’ve shown the complicated underbelly of the whole operation instead.

Whilst I could do the maths myself, it meant learning how the system actually works. If I hadn’t done that, I couldn’t have done the maths. The average punter should not need to know nor care how the Oystercard system works. All they need to know is that they’ve spent £2.90 of their top-up credit getting from Colliers Wood to White City.

The right user experience is vital if you’re making products or services that people are going to use, especially when they’re on the scale of something like the Oystercard website. To be honest I’m rather surprised to find something like this on the Transport for London website. It’s a site that’s clearly had a lot of thought gone into it, which makes it especially disappointing that the Oyster journey history page seems to be be rather lacking all for the sake of someone writing some code to subtract one value from another.


  • Thomas says:

    I share the sentiments, I’ve been planning to write a user script to nice-ify the display… Just never got around to it.

  • Kareem Osman says:

    A more detailed list is available, but you have to request this from the Oyster Helpline or by emailing them.
    Only 8 weeks data is available. Apparently that’s due to legal reasons.

  • Brendan says:

    Thank you for putting my thoughts into words. There must be a better way of showing tjis information. It has made for some very interesting discussions with my finance department when using the statement as evidence for an expenses claim!

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    One of my Manchester based colleagues has to phone up and get the list from the Oyster helpline in order to claim back his Oyster usage when visiting London. It seems like rather a waste of their time and money to have to keep issuing formal lists when people could just do it themselves online.

  • Seb Crump says:

    Yes, this annoys me. I’ve even sent feedback and complaints through various channels several times a couple of years ago, but gave up as it was obviously not going to change. The price cap column isn’t even used when there is a price cap, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they want to keep it a bit confusing so users are less likely to challenge/complain…

  • Pauly says:

    At last! They’ve changed it to display the journey start/end time, start/end stations, the charge and the balance! My expenses claims will now involve a great deal less arithmetic and head-scratching.
    I just wonder about this 8-week cut-off for legal reasons. I bet Big Brother keeps the data for ever and a day, it’s only us that aren’t allowed to look back beyond a couple of months. It’s probably for the same reason that you can only get journey history if you link your Oyster card to a credit card…