Train ticket collection – how doing something pointless can make sense for the user

Published on 6 June 2011 in , , , , , ,

I was recently bought some train tickets online. Normally I like to get tickets posted to my house – it’s just easier to know they’re in your hand rather than going to the station on the day, having to mess around with ticket machines and so on.

What if, for some reason, I was running late and the ticket machines were half broken and there was a huge queue and there was a noughty woman from Market Harborough who was trying to buy a train ticket to a station that closed down five years earlier and as such was having battles with the ticket office attendant?

But in this case I didn’t have time to get them posted so an on the day pickup it was.

I duly ordered the tickets and picked the box on the form to say where I’d pick them up – London Euston. As it happened, I was going to be at London Euston two days earlier anyway for a work trip to Manchester, so my plan was to pick them up then. Except I forgot.

Later that day I’m stood in Manchester Piccadilly with twenty minutes to kill (having just missed a train by – and I kid you not – 10 seconds) and I remembered something I’d read on a web forum. All the ticket collection machines were interlinked, and therefore you could pick them up from any station.

I wandered over to the fastticket machines, put my card in and lo, my tickets printed out several hundred miles away from where they were supposed to.

And why shouldn’t they? After all, the machines are all connected to the internet. When you use them to pick up a ticket, the machine just checks some central database, finds your booking and prints your tickets. Lo, there is no problem. Any station with an appropriate ticket machine would work. I could be in Glasgow Central, Cadoxton or Newark North Gate, it wouldn’t make a difference.

For some time I couldn’t for the life of me work out why the websites then asked for users to select a station to pick the ticket up. This didn’t make any sense at all. Why hide the functionality? Why make you select a station. It was utterly pointless.

Then I twigged.

It was a perfect example of something pointless providing a key piece of website usability.

Example of selecting a train ticket on a railway company website

See, not every train station has a ticket machine, and not every ticket machine can print off tickets. If I lived in Godley where I went to primary school, I couldn’t pick up a ticket at the local station as there’s no ticket machine. Meanwhile Shepherds Bush on the London Overground has a ticket machine, but it can’t do ticket collection.

Now obviously the ordering process could just state that tickets can be picked up at a wide range of stations, with a link to the full list. However anyone who knows anything about web usability knows that that list would never get read. Some users would just assume they’d be able to collect them from any station so the potential is there for people to buy tickets and not be able to collect them before travelling.

By forcing the user to select a station from a predefined list, no one gets confused and everyone gets their tickets. Those that know that tickets can actually be collected anywhere, get a secret bonus feature. And those that don’t, just don’t worry.

What may well be completely pointless at first glance, is the key to a happy customer experience. And that’s a result.

Having said all that, it is interesting to note that the BBC has a corporate account with, complete with ticket machines installed in offices. Collecting tickets from the office is free. However in an interesting twist, saying you will collect from a railway station machine, well that will see you being charged a £1 surcharge. I’ll leave you to guess how you get round that one…


  • Do you think this will be the same as London Underground’s Oyster PAYG “collection”?
    When topping up online, you have to select a station where you can touch your Oyster in order to “collect” the payment you made online.
    I kind-of understand the security reasons behind this – you have to both pay online, and then physically tap the card the payment is going to in order to activate it.
    But why force you to choose a specific station to do this – why not the next station – whichever one that happens to be – your card touches?
    I found this really frustrating as a freelancer working across three different buildings in three different areas of London, with three different starting points from National Rail (so potentially six stations to choose from), never knowing where I would be working next. Eventually I switched to Auto TopUp.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    As far as I know, Oyster really does only collect it from the station you select. Last time I ordered some for collection near home and on the same day, went through quite a few stations and it was only added when I got to Colliers Wood.
    Not sure of the technical details behind Oyster but I suspect the ticket gates are on a local system that gets given an update once a day or something – basing that on the fact you can’t order online and collect your top up on the same day.
    But that said, auto top-up does make life much easier – I’m using it myself at the minute. Always surprises me how much credit I go through.