User story: all change on the train

User story: all change on the train

It’s a grey, chilly morning the week before Christmas.

I’m walking through the ticket barriers to board the London train at my end-of-the-line station in Norfolk. I’m pressed for time because, once again, I had to help an elderly passenger who had fallen victim to the unfathomable interface of the car park machine. Festive cheer is running low.

“Good morning, sir,” said the ticket attendant. “And Merry Christmas.” He smiled and handed me a small box of chocolates, decorated with toy trains and winter scenes.

In that moment, entirely irrationally, I could feel a year of over-crowded, over-priced and over-heated train experiences being turned on its head.

I laughed at myself.

I knew how illogical I was being, but they’d got me – emotionally – with that simple little interaction. It was a straightforward, relatable, human experience in an environment where I – and I suspect many others this year – have come to expect a faceless, corporate brick wall of strikes, delays and frustration.

Settling down on the train, I realised I was not alone in my reaction. Behind me, two teenage girls were opening one of the boxes.

“What’s in there?”

“It’s loads of little chocolates. Oh look, they’re snowmen…”

“How cute!”

Snowmen chocolates aboard the Christmas train

Across the aisle, two parents were corralling their three children into some seats, on their way into London for a day of Christmas shopping.

“What a treat! Aren’t we lucky!” I overheard the mum tell her children, after probably spending the best part of £100 on a family day ticket.

As the journey unfolded, the unexpected significance of this little gesture became more apparent.

We’ve come to accept trains as an environment of ‘every man for himself’: passenger against passenger, passenger against train company, train company against train staff. Unspoken conflict and resentment is written into every customer interaction.

But that day they handed out the chocolates, passengers started talking to each other in a way I’ve never seen before on these crowded carriages.

I watched as someone handed around their chocolates to strangers who had boarded the service further down the line and therefore not received a gift box of their own.

For the first time in a long-time, the train had become a civilised place, a public place, where people did not have to withdraw into themselves and their laptops just to make it through to their destination.

The chocolates were actually awful, cheap little things. The box was just printed cardboard costing a few pennies. But the memory… Well, I’m writing about it here, and – as I departed the train in London – I heard each of the passengers who’d shared the chocolates wishing the others a Merry Christmas before going their separate ways.

The experience itself was not reliant upon technology, of course, but I found it all the more interesting for that reason.  Not least because it changed the dynamic of train carriages, which have become a technology saturated environment.

One of the techniques we use to analyse existing customer experiences of any kind is to remove and examine in each building block in turn, considering how variance would affect the outcome:

  1. The station attendant.  The human connection was important to this experience.  It is absent from most British railway journeys, replaced by touchscreen machines and automated announcements.  The inflexibility of such customer touchpoints, which are incapable of nuanced dialogue, is especially noticeable during times of disruption.  There is an old adage in customer experience planning that customers need to feel, above all else, that they are being understood.  Once understanding is perceived by the customer, satisfaction rates begins to rise, even before there is tangible progress towards solving their actual need.  It is indicative of how infrequent these moments have become on the railways that something as simple as the presence of a real person on the platform to say ‘thank you’ felt this refreshing.
  2. The gift.  There was a folksy cuteness to the box design and the snowmen chocolates it contained, but these could have been substituted for any number of other gifts.  The important part was that felt like a genuine present, not corporate marketing material.  Perhaps unwittingly, the inclusion of multiple chocolates proved to be the more important decision.  This facilitated the acts of sharing – and the subsequent conversations – among fellow passengers.  It also opened the possibility the gift would be taken home and shared with other family members, leading to further discussion.
  3. The timing. The season constructed the context for authentic sentiment.  My reaction was influenced by feelings towards the upcoming Christmas holidays.  Time of day also played a role.  This was one of the slightly later morning commuter trains, meaning there was a sufficiently reduced flow of people that one attendant could hand a box to each passenger.  Earlier in the rush hour, or later when people were returning home, it might have felt strained.
  4. The journey.  The potential of the gift was amplified by the length of the journey.  On a suburban commuter train with five minutes between stops, there may not have been time for unpacking of the box and sharing of the chocolates.  As the starting station at the end of the line, there was also a longer buffer period during which passengers were boarding and getting themselves settled, which gave breathing room to explore the gift, rather than simply putting it into a bag for later.
  5. The surprise.  The experience would have felt very different if this has been promoted to me in advance.  My positive reaction was increased by the unexpected change in my morning, from a familiar routine, to a serendipitous pleasure.

There is often a misguided temptation for short-term competitive response to match other companies point for point.  We see it in all forms of experience design, digital and otherwise.  In smartphones, for instance, it has been at its most ineffective in the ongoing mimicking of the iPhone.  With the exception of Apple and Samsung, almost every smartphone manufacturer has been driven to razor thin or negative margins by trying to copy the market leaders.

Exercises like this are a starting point for a sustainable response.  By looking at how each component affected customer emotions, it is possible to abstract the ‘how’ from the ‘why’.  When you understand why a customer feels positive about an experience, you open more possibilities as to how you might differentiate a competitive response for the long-term.

The change in sentiment I experienced that morning on the train had nothing to do with the power of a box of chocolates and everything to do with the power of authentic goodwill to surprise and brighten.  That’s an approach which is transferrable to any industry.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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