Travelling hopefully

DG1Having just discovered Directgov’s mobile internet site, I had a look around.  Very sensibly they don’t attempt to replicate the range of content on their main site and have tried to focus on a limited set of content that might be particularly useful to people on the move.

But in going down that route, Directgov risks becoming just another gateway site – and worse still, risks offering services which are better done elsewhere.  As is clear from the screenshot of the mobile home page, the most immediately dynamic looking service is the journey planner.

The train departures element of that is pretty directly comparable with the National Rail WAP site (not a direct link since WAP sites don’t work on normal browsers).  That is simpler, older, and much less pretty technology – but that turns out not to be very important.  What feels much more important to me is that the National Rail site is much more sensitive to the limitations of data input on a mobile, while Directgov demands much more precise (and so extensive) input, and generates unhelpful error messages when it fails to get it.  There is a full side by side comparison in the extended post below which shows pretty clearly why I am not taking the National Rail link off my phone quite yet.

That’s not intended as a cheap dig at Directgov.  They deserve credit for recognising that mobile services need to be taken seriously and for doing something about it.  The more interesting question is whether when and how it is sensible for a government service to start competing in a wider market for information provision – and that question is equally relevant whichever of the two versions is the better.  One could argue that Directgov’s own logic for aggregating and organising information around citizens’ needs rather than service provider structures carries the seeds for its own destruction.  If what matters is bringing information and services together around customers, there may not be a particular reason to stop at the boundaries of government – and it may be more compelling for government content to appear in other contexts than for Directgov to take on everything which is not government.  In lots of ways the web is becoming modular.  Where will we expect to look for train times when those developments have matured a little further?

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I started with abbreviations for both sites – mostly because I was using a phone with a slightly cumbersome touch screen, so input brevity is a core requirement.

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Directgov doesn’t seem able to interpret stub searches.  That’s not a disaster, but the error page is very odd. – they don’t seem able to distinguish between the search being performed, but no results being found, and the search failing to operate at all.

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Putting in the full names doesn’t help.  Bizarrely, this turns out to be because this system doesn’t know where London is…
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… while the National Rail system prompts for disambiguation.  Even more impressively, it doesn’t actually need it, and still gives the right answer even if no station is specified.
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And in a further oddity, having refused to recognise London, it promptly converts Euston back to London Euston at the confirmation screen.
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It finally comes up with some answers – though some of the trains seem to be going to the hitherto unknown city of Carlisle Rail, and the intended destination doesn’t appear anywhere despite the (relatively) generous screen area.

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Meanwhile, the National Rail service has a choice of future dates which the Directgov version lacks altogether.

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The Directgov screenshots were generated here and those from National Rail here.