Posts about Websites
The DC Council is looking to improve its website. That's welcome, since there are many confusing elements. What would you improve?
For me, the organization of the home page is not very helpful. There are a lot of random links on the left side in boxes, on the bottom in different size boxes, on the right side in a scrolling ticker, in the center in a rotating image, and even a few at the very top. Most of the useful information is in links within the navigation bar, where it's harder to find.
All pages on the site have a sidebar which is mostly useless. The top is filled with today's weather. How many people are going to go to the page for the Council of the District of Columbia to find out the weather? There's news on there, but why does that need to be on each page? That's the kind of thing that should be on the front page, but isn't.
I watch hearings often. If you go to the "MEDIA" menu, there are separate links Watch Hearing Live and Watch Hearings Live. The first goes to the channel 13 cable feed, which requires you to listen to a welcome message (ironically still from Chairman Vincent C. Gray) before seeing anything. The second goes to another system that shows separate live feeds from each office.
A lot of pages don't have much information on them, like Programming Schedule, which just has a single link to the OCT TV-13 page. If there's just one link, send people directly there instead of making them view an intermediate page.
There are multiple separate calendars. The first one, Daily Schedule, goes to an interactive calendar application which just has the names of committees holding hearings in the grid. You have to mouse over each one to see the topic of the hearing.
Other items, like the annual budget and oversight hearings, show up in yet another, separate list.
Most of the important information only appears on the Legislative Calendar page, which shows what's up for votes. It's just plain text, however.
A Hearing Notices page lists upcoming hearings, and that has gotten a lot better from previous years by at least including the topic of each hearing instead of a plain list of dates below the name of each committee. One remaining problem is that the URL for this page is "2011hearingnotices"; last year it was "2010hearingnotices." That means if I set up an automated script to notify me of changes to this page, I have to change it every year.
There are links for past hearings for each committee, also under "MEDIA," but that only has archived videos from 2010, For example, the
Public Works & Transportation Committee page has its last hearing on 12/14/2010. But if you go to View Past Hearings and click on one of the only two links on that page, you get the OCT TV-13 archives which contain more recent meetings.
RSS feeds would greatly help people who want to follow the council or specific committees. There should be at least a feed of hearings for each committee or one encompassing everything, a feed of bills introduced, and a feed of items for the legislative meetings.
In short, there are too many links, many of which go to pages with little information or even out of date information that's more complete in another part of the site. A redesign is much needed and very welcome.
How do you use the site? What could make it more usable for you? I'll pass your suggestions from the comments on to the people handling the redesign.
New Board members might be less quick to push back on the suggestion of service cuts, but they also are raising the quality of recommendations on technology, customer outreach, and performance metrics.
DC's Tom Downs said that years ago, Metro had a big electronic sign in the lobby showing performance metrics. As those metrics deteriorated, first the sign stopped getting updated, then disappeared completely.
Jeff McKay warned against letting metrics drive personnel. The metrics, he said, are tools for improving service, not ways to get a "gotcha" on a particular staff member. That's right, and if someone misses a goal a few times, it shouldn't necessarily warrant punishment. Perhaps it's the goal that's wrong.
Also, a good organization wants to encourage people to set ambitious goals, it shouldn't punish people for missing some of them. However, management should take a closer look at people who constantly don't make real progress toward goals, to decide if either they're setting unreasonable goals or aren't doing good work.
Downs and others also pushed hard on better communication as well as better processes on escalator and elevator outages. Downs said that WMATA "did a lot of stupid things" which got the agency into its current escalator mess, adding, "Admitting we bought some junk and are replacing it is an important part of the story."
I'll be on TBD's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt starting at 10 to discuss the news that the WMATA Board has decided to keep Richard Sarles on as GM/CEO.
Jim Dinegar from the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, are also participating. You can watch the segment live here.
Maryland Governor O'Malley spilled the beans Friday. WMATA responded by putting out a tight-lipped odd press release. We've pointed out before how funny it is that the WMATA press email list just announces the title of each press release and requires people to click to read it; that's even weirder when the title itself has no information:
Over the past week, Metro has seen a number of major service disruptions, mainly due to the heavy snowfall. But WMATA's method of communicating over email, which sends messages with only a link to a page on WMATA.com instead of the text of the announcement, turned out to be useless when too many people tried to view the release.
Thursday evening, the Office of Personnel Management announced that government workers would be expected in the office on Friday. WMATA announced its plans for the region, including limited service on the Red and Orange Lines. The volume of traffic seeking out this information overwhelmed WMATA's servers, and many were unable to get vital information. That led Greater Greater Washington to mirror the service information for readers.
What's the problem? WMATA sends out press releases like this one:
With no service information, riders are forced to click for additional information. If the website is inaccessible, riders are out of luck. Furthermore, it forces riders to have an Internet connection, when many with Blackberries or similar devices might have the email but reduced ability to load the page.
When a train derailed at Farragut North on Friday, WMATA sent out a release with the title, "Metro News: Derailment reported at Farragut North Metrorail station." Unfortunately, I was unable at the time to get to the website to read the full text. Was the station open? Were they single-tracking? When was normal service expected to resume? Not for 47 minutes did WMATA send out a second release, this one titled "Derailment at Farragut North Metrorail station: station closed."
Compare how MTA sends out information to MARC commuter train riders:
People who get this press release don't need to swarm MTA's servers. The information they need is in their inbox. Even if MTA's servers go down, commuters have to only go so far as their email service to know where trains are running and any other pertinent information.
Ken Archer sent in a tip this morning that when he'd tried to access it, the WMATA site was again down. WMATA could beef up their website capacity, but the best solution would be to include fuller information in notification emails.
Metro's riders need to be able to get information, especially about service, during an emergency. The current system falls short, and WMATA needs to reformat how it sends this data to riders.
A few weeks ago, The Transit Ombudsman put the spotlight on Metro's online trip planner. Readers identified many good issues and provided excellent suggestions on the trip planner and other topics. WMATA staff followed up with us promptly and is working to correct many of the issues.
The goal of the Transit Ombudsman is to identify issues that bother riders and then contact Metro to seek solutions. The focus is on issues that are good bets to produce successful results.
Suzanne Peck, WMATA's Assistant General Manager for Information Technology, contacted me to pledge the IT team's responsiveness. David and I met with Peck and her deputy, Vic Grimes. We feel that both were very responsive and we are hopeful of seeing results that will raise rider satisfaction.
Your comments generally centered around four main areas: Items that were unclear or confusing on the site, the need to make it easier to report problems, accuracy issues around the trip planner, and trouble with NextBus.
Today's column focuses on the first of those. wmata.com has many helpful tools for riders, but in some cases the names of tools or instructions aren't clear enough. Here are a few examples you identified:
It isn't. Type in "U Street," for instance, and the tool, based on Google Maps, suggests addresses around the world starting with one in South Africa. You're supposed to type in a specific address and find the closest rail stations with their distances.
The IT team will change this to "Find station near address." Does that help?
What I hear most is people don't know what "Service nearby" is and they don't use it. If you haven't used it, is "Service nearby" clear?
As with Find a Station, you can type in a specific address or landmark. But here, the site lists both bus stops and train stations within one mile, plus the exact distances.
Have you ever used this? If you have, how useful has it been?
We asked the IT team to change "Service nearby" on the main page tools list to "Service near address." They explained there isn't enough space and that "Service nearby" is based on Google maps' "Search nearby." However, on Google maps, that feature shows up only after you've typed in a location and you see a map, making it clear what it's for.
Positive instructions: Jane suggested that the trip planner prominently tell people what to enter in addition to what not to enter. The trip planner's address boxes say, "Do not enter city, state or zip," but that doesn't say what to enter.
Farther down, on the trip planner's longer form, it says, "Note: Enter address, intersection or landmark. Do not include city, state, zip code or any commas." But this is not particularly visible, nor is it part of the shorter form on the home page.
IT staff agreed this has merit. They will give greater emphasis to the instructions for what to enter. What do you think of the wording that's already there?
Which other tools on WMATA.com do you think need to be described more clearly?
IT staff at Metro are demonstrating responsiveness to the issues readers of The Transit Ombudsman are raising. And they requested that I ask you to be as specific as possible in your comments. They're reading what you're writing.
Upcoming posts will look at your comments on reporting problems, trip planner accuracy, and NextBus.
I'm not a doctor, or a therapist.
I'm just an activist, inspired by what our collective energy can achieve to help us get around the Greater Washington area efficiently and safely.
Today, I introduce The Transit Ombudsman: A series of posts on issues that bother riders, where I will contact Metro to seek solutions. I will focus only on issues that are good bets to produce successful results. I want your suggestions for what to work on.
In November, David wrote about Metro's underwhelming response to a customer's complaint over rock-throwing near at a rail station. After the post ran, top Metro staff took action to produce the kind of results that riders have a right to expect every day.
Many of us who strongly support transit genuinely want Metro to be more responsive to riders' needs and more accountable, too. It would make getting around easier. And by making transit a more attractive option, we will reduce traffic congestion, stress and pollution.
The higher the level of public confidence in Metro, the easier it will be to secure the funds needed to improve transit service. Metro really needs to recognize this dynamic.
There are many improvements needed at Metro. Many are complex or costly, or both. But they're not what the Transit Ombudsman will primarily focus on. Instead, I will focus on "low-hanging fruit," which WMATA Board member Chris Zimmerman and his aide Samantha Sissman know something about. They successfully pushed for installing handles below the top horizontal bars in rail cars to give short riders something to grab onto other than another rider's hair. (Note: I am 5'6½".)
Our first Transit Ombudsman topic will be Metro's online trip planner. To give Metro staff credit, it sure has improved a lot. But perfect, it's not.
Tell me and our readers Do you think adding a special link for riders to report problems with the trip planner would be a good way to improve it?
The goal of The Transit Ombudsman is to identify low-cost issues that are easier for us to get action on so we can strengthen Metro
Do you think adding a special link for riders to report problems with the trip planner would be a good way to improve it?
The goal of The Transit Ombudsman is to identify low-cost issues that are easier for us to get action on so we can strengthen Metro
Last week, I explored some of the reasons Metro has resisted, from top-down thinking to unrealistic views of Google to myopia about revenue. There may be another factor at work: Many within Metro simply don't perceive the value of letting people use the Google Transit trip planner. After all, there's already a trip planner on wmata.com.
That trip planner isn't bad. However, there are many ways it could be much better. It doesn't show a graphical diagram of the route it's suggesting, for example, or pictures of the alternate routes. If you enter some information, see the results, and then decide to change your search (such as excluding bus or rail trips), when you go back to the home page, your original entries get wiped out, forcing you to retype.
When developing software, it's easy to become accustomed to one way of using the software, and navigate around the warts. If one method of getting information is easier than another, it's easy to simply start using the easier route all the time. That's fine if you're an average user, but developers have to think outside the box. For that reason, good software development includes user studies.
When I worked at Google, I was involved with creating a feature that displays a list of albums if you type in the name of a band and the word 'albums', like this. One time, we user tested the "Search Music" page, and asked the user to try searching for some artist. We expected her to type in the artist name, but she added the word "songs," and then the system started looking for albums and tracks with the word "songs" in the title. It was easy to fix this, but not something we expected based on the way we ourselves used the prototype.
For example, when you call the NextBus phone number, it says to say the name of a service. One obvious response might be to say the number of your bus. That's a "service," right? But actually, that will just confuse the system, which is expecting you to say "NextBus." That's far from clear. Kytja Weir of the Examiner told me that she pointed this out, and officials reacted with some surprise. After all, they knew to say "NextBus" right away, so it wasn't a problem for them.
Besides, why should you have to say "NextBus"? Weir asked this as well, and they replied that they wanted all of the calls to route through one place. Why? It would be far better to have a separate phone number for NextBus, which goes to an interface optimized to help you get your bus, and an otpion. The prompt could say something like, "Welcome to Metro's NextBus hotline. Say the number of your bus line, or say "customer service" if you want other Metro services."
I've avoided criticizing the trip planner too much because it's important to encourage agencies to innovate. Remember, Metro was afraid to release NextBus for even an unpublished beta test until they were absolutely sure it was accurate. (And then, when it launched, it was still not 100% accurate). It's far better for organizations to launch a bunch of technology tools quickly, even if they're not perfect, than to obsess about getting criticized for the smallest flaw. On Friday, OCTO released a Circulator iPhone app. Some commenters criticized it for being too rudimentary. Of course, more features would be great, but given limited resources, I'd much rather they released a basic app in a short period of time than hold it back for months or years until it's perfect. We can enjoy it in the meantime.
I'm glad Metro has a trip planner on wmata.com. They did a pretty good job, overall. But it still has its share of flaws. There are also user scenarios, like someone searching for a restaurant on Google Maps and wanting to get directions with a simple click, that the trip planner doesn't accommodate. And when staff start arguing that the trip planner is good enough as a reason not to keep an open mind about other technological tools, they've crossed a line.
Quite simply, Google Transit would be very valuable to riders. It would provide a service much better than what's available today. It wouldn't supplant the wmata.com trip planner, but would supplement it. That's a very valuable service. We could easily argue that it's so valuable, it's something Metro could spend money on, just as they spent money on NextBus. Fortunately for Metro, it's free. That sounds like a very good deal for riders.
You can help us make the case for why Google Transit represents a significant value add for riders. Have you used it in other cities? Post your story: what you were looking for, how you found the information, and why it was useful. An on the flip side, let's collect some stories about flaws in the existing trip planner. Did it return bad results, or did the user interface make things more difficult than need be? Please be specific, giving particular start and end locations if you can.
Unlike many other transit agencies, Metro has resisted encouraging third party applications that help riders, partly because they perceive technology from a top-down point of view, and from unrealistic expectations because Google is big and rich. But this obsession with control and getting revenue is causing Metro staff to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Greater Greater Father-In-Law told me a story about his days consulting for health care companies. One large nonprofit hospital with a budget around a billion dollars a year decided to make some forays into establishing a for-profit arm. They created a pharmacy where patients could buy medicines and supplies. This pharmacy did pretty well, and started turning a profit. Executives spent a very large percentage of their time reviewing the performance and exploring ways to improve it.
However, the pharmacy only netted about $60,000 a year. That was less than the cost of one employee. Yet this project was eating up much more of the executives' time than monitoring the operations of the actual hospital. If they could have found a way to serve the same patients with even one fewer staff member, they would have netted as much money for the hospital as the entire pharmacy project. That doesn't mean that it was a bad project, but context is more important.
There's nothing wrong with Metro looking into the possibility of getting some money. But they want to spend $500,000 to investigate this. And we have some strong evidence that $0 is the most they'll get. Even if that's not true, there's no way it's anywhere near $500,000. If Google had offered, say, $50,000 a year for 10 years, would Metro have jumped with joy? But they could make that much just by not spending $500,000 in the first place.
The biggest danger is that once they've sunk $500,000 into this, it'll be all the more difficult to then agree to release the data gratis. Right now, the debate is about doing something that costs Metro nothing, and getting a benefit to riders. After $500,000 goes down the drain, it'll psychologically shift the debate into one about whether it's right to do something that doesn't recoup the investment, despite the benefit to riders.
At last week's Board meeting, Metro's Sarah Wilson repeated another one of staff's arguments against this project: that it might cut into the money Metro gets from ads on wmata.com. But Metro only gets $70,000 a year from ad revenue on the site, out of a total budget of about $1.5 billion. That's four-thousandths of a percent of the budget, and probably less than Sarah Wilson makes.
Sure, every little bit helps, but if the $70,000 in ad revenue is such a concern, why is $500,000 acceptable for a contract just to find out about the possibility of making money? There's no way that working with Google Transit is going to reduce all of that revenue. Let's say it reduces it by $10,000 a year. Just to recoup the $500,000 would take 50 years.
Zimmerman also noted that better and more accessible trip planners could bring in more riders at off-peak times. Many buses and most trains are full at rush hour, but the commuters don't need a site to tell them how to get to work. The people who would use it are tourists visiting the area, and people riding to unfamiliar locations. A lot of that is off-peak. And every rider who takes up an empty seat on a bus is pure profit for Metro.
Anyway, Metro's real business is transportation. The ad revenue is a nice sideshow, but it shouldn't trump convenience to riders. Wilson was arguing that Metro should not help riders in order to force them to use the Web site against their will, all to protect this tiny sliver of revenue. Why not charge for the trip planner entirely? Should Metro promulgate a new policy that every train will pause for 15 seconds after it reaches a station and before the door opens, in order to force riders to look at the ads on the walls? What's the difference?
Of course, the difference is that the ad revenue is a line item on the IT department's balance sheet. If Metro gets more money in bus fares from riders who use the system because of Google Transit, they get no credit. But if ad revenue goes down, even a tiny bit, that might hit their budget and deprive them of the opportunity to hire more staff. It's a common attitude in bureaucracies and large companies alike.
The IT department clearly isn't going to see the big picture. It's the General Manager's job to do so, or if he can't, the Board of Directors. One of them has to stand up and say that it's more important to help riders and try to increase ridership on services with extra capacity than to zealously guard a tiny bit of ad revenue on wmata.com and obsess over a departmental P&L.
Next: Why Metro IT might be moving so slowly.
Besides wanting to find out if they could get money from their data, Metro's other stated reason for not working partnering Google was the quality and availability of Metro's own trip planner. Sometimes, though, the trip planner gives bizarre results, even including riding a bus in a circle for an hour.
Most of the time, when I use the trip planner for rail trips, the results are fairly accurate. The interface is clunky but improving, and it seems to assume an unreasonably long time to make a transfer. This is probably a design decision to ensure that even the slowest-moving customers can catch their train.
But I recently was invited out to dinner at a restaurant at Fairfax Corner, out in the Fair Oaks area (see map). Using the Metro trip planner gave some interesting results, to say the least. If you'd like to try this, the search was from "Eastern Market" to "4250 Fairfax Corner Ave [Fairfax, VA]" leaving at 4:20pm on a workday. These were the trip planner's suggestions:
- Take the Orange line to Vienna, wait 28 minutes to take the 623 past the restaurant (there's a stop about 0.3 miles from the restaurant), then get off at a park and ride and wait 24 minutes for the 605 going back the way you came, stopping at the restaurant you passed. Total time: 1:59.
- Take the Orange line to West Falls Church, wait a few minutes and take the 505 to Reston, then wait 49 minutes to transfer to the 605 to the restaurant. Total time: 2:50.
- (This is the really funny one) Take the Orange line to Vienna, wait 9 minutes to take the CUE-GOLD bus in a closed loop, arriving back at Vienna, then wait 57 minutes to take the 621 to the restaurant. Total time: 3:03, of which almost two hours is pure waste. It might as well have said, "Go to the Ugly Mug and drink for an hour and a half, then take the Orange line."
I looked into how stable this trip was, by varying the start time. Earlier departures resulted in earlier closed-loop rides on the CUE bus system, until the trip planner stopped providing that helpful suggestion (it only gave two options at that point). Later trips shifted to suggesting that instead of continuing on the Orange line to Vienna, I should get off at East Falls Church and take a bus (the 2) to Vienna (which takes 50 minutes instead of 10).
The real solution, after studying Fairfax Connector's bus map (large PDF), three bus schedules and calling the customer service phone number, is to take itinerary #1, get off a little beyond the restaurant and walk back along the route. It's less than a half mile and I'm in fair shape. That takes about an hour and a half.
Of course, it's not a given that Google would do any better. But Google has the incentive and resources to get their trip planner right. They're serving trip planner results for most of the country now, and problems with their search algorithm would affect many more riders than just Metro. Plus, with two trip planner choices, riders could use the better one. Maybe that'd be Metro's.
Others were able to point out very strange results from the planner, such as the suggestion to take a bus, Green line and Yellow line trains from "Greenbelt Center SC" to Huntington Metro station. The routing was correct, but it took over 7 hours for the train to get from Greenbelt to Fort Totten, and over an hour to get from Fort Totten to Huntington (This showed up on a search on 8/17/2009).
What's the strangest thing you've seen? Is the trip planner helpful? Please share your funny and/or strange trip planner results in the comments. Update by David: Metro officials in charge of the Web site have expressed interest in getting more feedback on times the trip planner falls short or other ways to improve it. We'll forward your useful bug reports and suggestions to them.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Parklets give every block a little park