Booking reference

After the previous post’s long sequence of service design failures, here’s one little thing that should be easy to get right, and which causes incredible frustration at exactly the wrong moment.

When buying a train ticket online in the UK, in advance, you can choose to collect the ticket from a machine at the train station. You receive an email containing all the relevant details.

When you get to the station the machine offers this screen:

Photo of the screen

It asks:

Please enter your booking reference:

You check the email you’ve kept handy on your phone and look for the “booking reference”:

Email screenshot 1

There it is, near the bottom:

Your booking reference is 2106902679.

You type it in to the machine, although the input field is the wrong length, which is odd.

The machine rejects your booking reference.

You try again, because you must, but no joy.

In desperation you scroll through the rest of the email because you don’t know what else to do and your train leaves in a few minutes:

Email screenshot 2

Hmm. What’s this?

Collection reference: R2T4KB9C

But the screen wants the “booking reference”, which was the first number.

It’s worth a try…

Ah, this “collection reference” is the right length…

And, yes, the machine starts printing your tickets!


So, what the collection machine calls a “booking reference”, the email calls a “collection reference” or (in the subject line) a “booking confirmation”. And the email contains a “booking reference” number which appears to have no purpose, even though it’s the first reference in the body of the email.

When starting a project, and throughout its life, it’s important to ensure everyone involved calls things by the same names. I’m guessing that in this case different teams, or even companies, built the software that sends the emails and the software that runs the collection machines. Due to a mismatch of internal vocabularies the single piece of information the user needs at the most crucial part of the process has been muddled.

It’s probably a nightmare of laborious and expensive change request processes to fix this simple piece of wording, which has already been wrong for months, if not years. But that’s another issue.

12 Aug 2014 at Twitter

  • 10:09am: @holgate @ianbetteridge It's nice, but… why a lion?
  • 01:12pm: @andyhunti Weird! Why were you going slower than usual?
  • 02:25pm: Another person spamming to see if http://t.co/BxsHzT41fS would like to promote their clients’ products with lists and blog posts.
  • 02:25pm: “I’m only the technical assistant, so you might want to contact the author himself: Samuel Pepys, Navy Office, Seething Lane, London 1661.”
  • 03:52pm: When a booking reference isn’t a booking reference: http://t.co/sFsfm68haD
  • 05:49pm: I like 2014. Victor Meldrew-esque rants about the world’s frustrations can be disguised as clever critiques of “service design”.
  • 05:50pm: @GennHutchison I thought you might like this: “Josie Lawrence and Greg Proops: how we made Whose Line Is It Anyway?“ http://t.co/tUXJWkOgIR
  • 05:52pm: @sonia__harris In our own way’s we’re *all* working in design criticism. We just don’t get paid for it.
  • 05:58pm: @aden_76 Thanks :)
  • 05:59pm: @hondanhon “Experienced Victor Meldrew seeks technical co-founder and investment.”

On this day I was reading