Saturday, August 20, 2005

Amtrak Acela back, still broken

I’m finally riding the Acela back and forth between Boston and New York City again, but I guess it’s probably no surprise to say that while the brakes may be fixed, the train is still a traveling example of unfortunate customer experience. Here’s just one example.

Back in 2001, when I regularly rode the train to a consulting job in New York, one of the first things I noticed about the train was the clumsy, jerry-built quality of the bathroom locks. They had the look of having been designed, after a fashion, by an engineering firm that spent most of their time making some kind of heavy mechanical component that sat out of sight on the bottom of a train car (brakes, perhaps?) rather than the sleek, consumer-friendly image Amtrak intended the Acela to project.

Within a month or so of the introduction of the Acela, passengers were regularly finding themselves locked in the bathroom, or even more disastrously, having the door roll open at a time when they thought they were assured some privacy. You see, the locks were so poorly designed that they failed on several fronts: passengers couldn’t figure out how to use them, which really didn’t matter much since many were broken anyway.

Fast forward to late summer, 2005. The locks have been replaced with a new, even bulkier lock, which in turn required that large notches be cut into the wall to the right of the door to accommodate the locks when the doors were open. Now visualize this – with the door closed, you stand at the sink and wash your hands. Paper towels are immediately in front of you under the mirror (whoops, didn’t mean to set off the overly sensitive motion sensor switch on the hand dryer, which happens every time due to it's too-close location, a fraction of an inch from the towels.) You dry your hands, look around briefly, and seeing a big black hole, throw in your towel.


By acting with the instinctual logic we bring to acts such as hand-washing, you just threw your towel into the space cut in the wall to accommodate the lock of gargantuan proportions which was re-engineered to overcome the failings of the first faulty lock "design."

Solution: freshly minted signs reminding passengers to fight their ingrained impulses and seek the trash can elsewhere. They read “Please do NOT throw trash into this space.”

Marketers and designers of experiences, ask yourselves -- if there isn't enough time to do it right in the first place, will you, inevitably, find the time to do it over instead? Paula Scher got it right: “Design is doing something right that you had to do anyway.” And by the way, when you're doing it, whatever it is, pay attention to the degree of engagement your prospect/user/customer brings to the experience, and the potential role of ingrained behavior. The Acela "when is a trash can not a trash can" experience reminds me of watching usability test participants searching on the web -- when they see an open field for text entry and a "go" button, they type in a term and hit the button. No time for the fine details, they've been taught how to behave by the preponderance of prior experience.


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