It’s easy to say we should start with the user. At one level, it’s self-evidently the right thing to do. But it isn’t always obvious why even well-intentioned efforts can go wrong if the starting point is even subtly distant from the users. Here’s a simple story of how that can be so.

There were long delays at Vauxhall yesterday morning. I know because TfL told me.

There were still long delays at Vauxhall an hour later. I know because TfL told me that too.

In between those tweets, I got on a bus which sailed through Vauxhall more quickly than any I have been on for quite a while.1

On the face of it, that’s all a bit odd. But there is a very simple explanation. TfL’s view of delay is that of a provider of transport services. My view of delay is as a user of those services.

From TfL’s point of view, bus x is supposed to go past point y at time z. If it gets to z late, it has been delayed.2 Quite rightly, TfL care about specific buses and the overall service. But from my point of view, if I get to point y at time z, I am happy – and will be blissfully ignorant of the fact that I am on bus q which should have got to y half an hour earlier. There’s a big difference between delay in the sense of TfL not having its buses where it wants them and delay in the sense of congestion slowing everything down. Of course they are related – the second is a major cause of the first, but talking about them as if they were the same thing obscures rather than illuminates.

I wasn’t delayed by 40 minutes this morning and, from what I saw, I would be surprised if anybody else was either, at least in the sense of reaching their destination 40 minutes later than they had expected. There clearly were problems in that the gaps between buses were longer and less regular than they should have been, but that’s a bus placement problem, not a passenger journey time problem – the delay from extended service intervals might have been five minutes, or even ten, but it certainly wasn’t 40.

So does any of this matter? I’d argue that it does for two reasons, one specific and one general.

The specific one is that if there are actual delays, I want to know about them and about how bad they are.  If those warning are indistinguishable from notional delays, then I will still not have the information I need to make sensible choices.

But the real reason for writing this post is the general problem. TfL is confusing information which matters to them with information which matters to their passengers. They are looking at the problem as producers, not consumers. So the real moral of this story is that providing information to customers is valuable in direct proportion to its focus on meeting actual customer needs – and that is both harder and less obvious than it might first appear.

  1. The only delay I encountered was at the end of Victoria Street, where a tour bus had broken down and was completely blocking northbound traffic. As it happens, TfL didn’t tell me about that at all.
  2. Or at least that’s what I assume their point of view is, but I am inferring that from what they do, rather than knowing it for a fact.

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