travel travails

Bad design: The Mumbai local train is the city’s lifeline. Why is the network so difficult to use?

These local trains carry more people in a week than the entire population of Spain. Shouldn't the signs be designed better?

Bad UX, or user experience design, is not just limited to, say, just LinkedIn. It’s all around us.

I travel by the Mumbai local train every day, and often take the metro. Millions of people in Mumbai do this too. The commute is such a mundane part of our lives that we do not stop to think how an outsider would feel about the chaos that we have internalised over years of (bad) experience. From what I can guess, they would be confused at best and frustrated at worst.

If I were to describe my morning commute, it would sound like this:

I take the 8.08 Churchgate-bound slow train from platform number 2 in Borivali. Alight at Mahalaxmi and take bus number 154 to my office.

Now this is a normal part of my routine. If you are new to the city you’d know just two or three of the parameters required to reach your destination. The gaps in information should ideally be filled by the system through UX design. A good user experience design helps a user achieve the desired goal with minimal effort. In case of a commute, a user’s goal is to go from point A to point B. It is criminal to assume that the user would know anything more than what point A and B are.

Unfortunately, the local trains in Mumbai, and even the metro, fail spectacularly in addressing this.

I recently traveled to Europe. I was worried that it would be an arduous task to ask for directions in a language I wasn’t very comfortable in. But I was blown away by how convenient the Paris Metro was for complete novices, even though it was built over 100 years ago. It has its problems (it is slow, old, unreliable and smells like piss) but ease-of-use is not one of them.

Coming back to Mumbai…

Umm.. where’s the platform?

So, you have to undertake the train part of my daily journey at some other time of the day. The difference is that you just know you have to board at Borivali and alight at Mahalaxmi. Nothing else.

All right? let’s get going.

You’ve reached Borivali station after fighting your way through a traffic jam of auto rickshaws, BEST buses and for some reason, roadside food stalls. You see Borivali written in huge letters outside assuring you that you are at the right place.

Welcome to Borivali!
Welcome to Borivali!

You enter the station, buy your ticket to Mahalaxmi. All good. Let’s get to the train. This is when you are hit with your first question: “Where the hell is my train?”

Once you enter the station you are greeted by an indicator on a tiny monitor. Mahalaxmi is nowhere to be found on it. If you are lucky, it might even be working.

Electronic indicator at Borivali Station. Figure it out yourself.
Electronic indicator at Borivali Station. Figure it out yourself.

All right, so there are trains to Churchgate, Virar and so on. Some have “S” or “F” written next to them. You think: “What the hell is that?”

Herein is problem number one. There is no way a user can guess where her or his train will arrive without knowing all about directions, slow and fast trains, and where the platforms are.

This is how Paris Metro solves a part of this problem. All stations on a route are listed before one enters the platform.

By Clicsouris (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
By Clicsouris (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

They don’t have the slow/fast complexity in Paris so we’ll have to figure it out ourselves. Also they don’t have unscheduled platform changes.

Let us assume you somehow figure out which platform number to go to. You get to your platform, that is, platform number eight (for which you had to walk the length of two platforms). You find a relatively empty spot on the platform. The train arrives, but you’re told you can’t enter this coach which makes you think: “Why the hell can’t I get in this coach?”

There is no sign to show that the empty spot you found on the platform is where the luggage compartment of the train stops. You’re made rudely aware of this fact by the rushing dabbawalas exiting the compartment with their large trays. But wait. That’s not it. It could have been any of the other compartments you are not allowed to enter but don’t know the stopping positions of:

  • Handicap
  • First class
  • Ladies
  • Ladies first class

This is problem number two. A user has no way to guess where her or his compartment will be. The only indications are the coloured bands on pillars. Red and yellow for first class, green and yellow for ladies. How on earth will anyone guess what those colours mean?

Alright, there are some signs to tell you that you have to enter any of the general or second class compartments, but it wouldn’t bankrupt the railways to put out clear signs.

Anyway, now you know that you belong with the unwashed masses in second class. So you accept it, and try to find a place to sit. You settle for the “fourth seat” that you are immediately asked to vacate by an 80-year-old relic of a man. As your ego is at an all-time low from the embarrassment of being so clueless, and the subsequent shoving and pushing, the stations go by, the train gets full and suddenly you are hit with another realisation: “Where the hell am I?”

You are stuck between bodies who interfere with your line of vision that has to pass through a tiny window with grills, or the door, towards a small board with the station’s name written in three languages.

Man for scale. Too bad if your first language is not Marathi.
Man for scale. Too bad if your first language is not Marathi.

This is problem number three. A new user would never guess when their destination is about to arrive if they cannot see where they are.

Compare the size of the board in the photo above to the one below in the Paris Metro. The whole board above is as large as just one letter in the picture below.

Seats for scale. The name of the station is clearly visible from anywhere inside the train.
Seats for scale. The name of the station is clearly visible from anywhere inside the train.

To be fair, the trains and metro have really tried to solve this problem using two methods:

  1. Announcing the next station and final destination in three languages (English, Hindi and Marathi).
  2. LED display boards indicating the next station and the final destination like the following (though dysfunctional) board in a train.

Unfortunately, not all trains have working announcement systems or display boards as the one in the photograph above. I guess it is not worth stopping operations of an entire train just because the display is not working.

After all this, if you still managed to disembark at Mahalaxmi and not Churchgate, congratulate yourself. Count your stars that you don’t have to figure out where is East or West.

You survived like the millions of others who survive Mumbai everyday.

Phew.

One can argue that designing the local train system for a better user experience, especially for newcomers, is not the most urgent matter. However, a team of artists recently decided to decorate Borivali station with some graffiti. It looks like this now:

Photo credit: Making A Difference Foundation/Facebook.
Photo credit: Making A Difference Foundation/Facebook.

Good job, but too bad that can’t change the horrible user experience design. I would have been happier if they had put some signs on how to reach platforms number seven and eight.

For a newbie, all this can be solved by just “talking to people” but if this was an app meant for regular use, which required asking regular users to understand it, it would never have regular users in the first place.


Disclaimers and notes

  • These were just some general observations. There are specific problems like there are no directions whatsoever how to get to platform eight and nine in Andheri, or the utter chaos in junctions like Dadar. You just have to know or stumble around to find your way.
  • There are many reasons that mess up the user experience design, like sweaty armpits of fellow commuters, shitty ads and inexplicable delays. I just wanted to talk about the ease-of-use part in this post.
  • I know I’m comparing local trains to the metro but the local trains are the biggest mode of transport in Mumbai. They desperately need a redesign. The Mumbai metro has its own design problems but they are not as pronounced yet because there’s just one active line right now.

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