This week we divert from looking at recent mobile websites to take a look at an older offering. Eurostar launched a version of its website optimised specifically for mobile devices over two years ago. Like other websites with mobile offerings it will automatically detect mobile users and redirect them to the appropriate m.eurostar.com site. I journey through this mobile offering to see how this older experience has stood up to the test of time.
Eurostar is a high-speed railway connecting London with Paris and Brussels. The trains route takes them through the Channel Tunnel, a 31.4 mile underground rail tunnel linking Folkestone in the UK with Coquelles in France.
The first thing a mobile user sees after visiting the website is a simple language selector page, upon further visits the website will remember your selection. However if you make a mistake or later decide you need to view the website in a different language there is no interactive element for changing the language, it appears that the only way to reset the selection is to clear the browsers cache which is not a particularly user friendly method. After choosing your language you will be taken to the appropriate home page, complete with a pop-up asking if you want to download the Eurostar App. Google have recommended App interstitial such as this should be removed due to their disruptive nature to the user and we have previously written about the negative usability factors of the 'App Doorslam'.
The header on the home page is a good size and unobtrusive, the company logo is situated clearly in the top left with the rest of the header being empty. It strikes me that this empty area would be an ideal location for social media icons such as Facebook and Twitter. There is a distinct absence of any social media connections on the website, perhaps this is another telling sign of the websites age. Main content is presented via four tab interfaces; book, tickets, profile and help, most of these have options for further navigation.
Whilst the usability of the website is good on mobile devices with smaller screens there is a lack of consideration for tablets. When viewing the website on a tablet with a capable screen I would expect to be presented with the main website as it is fully able to display the original content. In Eurostar's case I am instead presented with the mobile version which gives a poor experience on a tablet, the interface is stretched and the interactive elements are compressed which makes it difficult to operate. There is a 'go to desktop' link but this is only present under the 'book' tab and I expected more with it being easy to recognise a tablet from other mobile devices by using a good device detection repository.
A second major flaw with the usability concerns the lack of available destinations, if you are traveling to Amsterdam, Bruges, Cologne or other onward destinations which are offered by the main version of the website you can not book these through the mobile website. This essentially forces you to use the desktop site to book journeys to these locations which is rather bad practice by offering limited content on mobile and will only serve to alienate customers by providing poor utility.
The first thing that struck me was the simple design, which is a good thing when considering the vast differences between mobile displays, it caters well to phones with low processing power and screen sizes. The design is essentially a collection of forms and static HTML text pages, it won't win any awards for innovation and isn't the prettiest website but it is cleanly presented with a logical layout. Experienced and new mobile users alike should have no problems navigating and viewing the website. At the risk of using an interaction design red flag the design of the timetable search and ticket booking functions are fool-proof, although I would appreciate a date format such as 10-10-2013 or similar rather than the cluttered 10102013 as would be provided in this case.
The 'help' tab contains a wealth of information presented in basic textual form and the menus contained within are decently categorised and informative, the design is again very simplistic which is good. Unfortunately there is much information under various headings that it takes time to navigate from deep in one heading to another, due to the tree like hierarchy and no quick way to go to previous headings or pages aside from using the hardware back button of your mobile device. Comparing the mobile site to its desktop parent we can see that the content of the mobile site is extremely limited, information such as hotels, car hire, insurance, station information, timetables and group bookings among others are all missing on the mobile version. It is less of a mobile version of their main website and more of a mobile website version of their downloadable App. A limited set of content lead to endless misunderstandings, poor customer experience and abandonment. The problem with limited content on the mobile site is that users very often don’t realize it is limited as they expect (and thus assume) all content will be available.
the mobile website is far from a complete representation of the original site and its goal appears to encourage customers to download the App, just perform a simple booking or direct them to the main website in all other instances. As the power of smart devices increases so does the expectations of the users, the design of the provided content is good but it could be argued that there just isn't that much content to design for. On a positive note the primary objective of booking a ticket is efficiently designed, if you are armed with prior knowledge and just want to book a ticket then it does the job. I think in most cases customers will want a bit more and will be forced to visit the desktop site which is counter intuitive.
The site looks good on small screens and the restricted use of colour and images helps visibility, clarity and reduces the strain on the devices battery. There are issues that need to be addressed with tablets in general, the website does not correctly detect tablets and send them to the main website, instead it classes them as a mobile phone when in fact the screen size difference between a small phone and a tablet can be over 7". If tablets must be directed to the mobile site then the mobile layout needs to be optimised for devices with larger screens so that the interface and visual elements remain useable, something which it currently does not do well.
Some things I really liked include the performance of the website which was very good, achieved in part by the simple design and limited content. I also liked the booking function, while the options are narrower than the main website I felt the overall experience was much more succinct than what the desktop version provides. The rest of the website is a very standard layout of menus within menus and various forms for capturing information. Aside from the booking process I felt I was spending too much time navigating to find information and then being disappointed with dry text. The menus are nice looking and links were more often than not an icon or interactive element rather than a textual hyperlink which was definitely a positive point. The interactive elements are also large enough to operate with the thumb and in general were organised in a familiar fashion to other mobile menus.
In the past focusing on translating the primary aspect of a website for mobile was the norm and universally accepted amongst users, the average user is now far more technologically adept and with advances made in both hardware and software the demand for more content continues to increase. Eurostar's mobile website still performs its originally intended role admirably but I can't help thinking that it is falling behind other more modern offerings in terms of content.
Eurostar lost quite a few potential marks on the usability and design aspects but had an impressive performance. Aside from the tablet detection and the intrusive App promotional there are not many problems, but there is a lot of content that has been omitted from the original site which hamstrings its potential to be a great mobile website.
Final Score: 3.4/5
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of 51Degrees.mobi.