Data presentation & usability, accessibility - what of timetables?

I use the web a lot, unsurprisingly. I use my smartphone to find things on the web a lot too. I have done for a long time. I was, however, rather surprised recently when I went investigating in order to find bus times for a journey to East Midlands Airport.

Up until recently, the SkyLink service (to the best of my recollection) had its own dedicated website, within which all the timetables were nicely presented on web pages, and I could easily find and check these on my smartphone. Last week, before a trip, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that eastmidlandsairport.com had replaced this website with pages that were internal to that site, and had removed presentation of these timetables from said pages, only to replace the data with links to PDF sites/default/files. Take a look, here, at the new page replete with PDFs. I particularly like that they have noted that their "timetable is available in a handy format for easy downloading and printing" - what, exactly, could more handy than an HTML table of the relevant data on the webpage, in this instance? I'm on the page, looking for the information, and it isn't available. WHY?!

This seemed unnecessary and frankly a bit short-sighted, so I wrote (with all my usual charm and diplomacy, natch) to the persons in question via their feedback form. Here's what I sent:

Is it some sort of twisted joke that you've decided in your infinite wisdom that the best way to disseminate timetables is by PDF?

So now instead of you cutting and pasting two tiny tables into an HTML file and making a link to it, you or your web developers have decided we have to download a file, and open it in another application? Seriously?

Previously, I could easily browse to the skylink site (which doesn't seem to exist any more?) and look at the timetable for Notts -> Airport on my smartphone, but I can't even do that any more.

Be smart. Make pages for timetables. Forcing people to use PDFs for this stuff is INSANE and a horrible usability problem, not to mention the fact that you're simply making barriers to getting what is essentially very simple information, which should be on the WEB, NOT in a file. Sort it out!

And yes, I make websites for a living.

Tactful, I'm sure you'll agree. Well, this morning I received a response from East Midlands Airport, which was ... well, you read it.

Dear Mr. Nik,

Thank you for your considered feedback upon our timetables section.

We constantly scrutinize the manner in which we relay important information to our customers. As I’m sure you’re aware, being a web developer, there are several benefits to the PDF format over presentation within a webpage. Namely:

- Consistent formatting/appearance across platforms and devices
- Better control over printed layout
- Offline access to data

Whilst we understand that this involves an extra click to access the information, we believe that the above benefits are particularly pertinent to timetables. Also, it may be worth investigating if there is a PDF reader for your smartphone as this would facilitate mobile browsing of the time table, whether you had connectivity or not.

We do review the manner in which we present information to our customers regularly and appreciate your feedback,

Many thanks,
Rob X

Given that my initial professional opinion has met with almost zero positive response, I'll just throw this open for comments...!

Blog Tags: AccessibilityUsability

Comments

what about offering HTML tables *AND* a PDF to download? or is that outside the reach of their tiny little brains?

"Consistent formatting/appearance across platforms and devices" Why is that even important? As long as people can read the timetable does the font etc really matter? A triumph of branding over usability perhaps.

I don't see why they can't provide an html table and a PDF for printing.

Well, I think there is perhaps some implied concern about browser compatibility here. That HTML tables have been around for some ~15 years (even before PDFs existed?), seems to be deemed irrelevant. Commenting to the effect that HTML is somehow inferior to PDF for tabular data presentation, printing or saving for later, is total garbage.

Usual story mate, it frustrates me when professional advice is met with a dismissive email. People just don't seem to want to take the time to create excellent customer service any more.

I'm with you on the HTML thing. As a side note, we have a website which gives access to documents in both HTML and PDF format. We've been racking our brains on how we can simplify the process - let's be honest, HTML creation can sometimes be a lengthy process when the source is in a Word doc, it's easier to create a PDF. That's probably why this lot have done what they've done, I'm not condoning it though.

Anyway, long story short, we came up with a solution, your thoughts on which, I'd gladly appreciate. Use Google Docs. Upload the word doc, the customer can then read the document in whichever format they want (Open Doc, Word, PDF, HTML etc), GDocs also creates a live HTML version too. As developers this will save tons of time and effort, we can simply link to the doc. Does that sit well with you or do you have other thoughts? Just in the hunt for some feedback before we implement it really.

Cheers,
Jonathan

Google Docs is all well and good, and personally I don’t even like PDFs at all. In the above instance though, simply putting the damned information on the web page in the first place would be adequate action.

Given that (I assume) there are multiple PDFs on this site, each of these is going to need to be updated manually. If they had a clue, they could easily implement an automatic PDF creation mechanism, update the tables on the website (presumably using a centralised CMS interface, one would hope) and have the PDFs automatically recreated…

The point, for me at least, of PDFs is to provide a complimentary information source. Yes, it’s lovely to have a nice, smart, easily printed/saved file, but not instead of the tabular data.

In a word: numpties.

And what adrinux said: small-minded and backwards obsession with control over presentation rather than ease of use and adaptability to the user's environment.

This is a good site: http://traintimes.org.uk/
It's all the train times for the UK, with a lot of nifty tricks (such as bookmarkable results), and it's all done by scraping the real, fairly awful, National Rail site.

Par for the course. Ridiculous response exposing the uninformed reasoning behind the decision. What can you say? If these organisations leave people who clearly have no knowledge of accessibility, web standards, or even the building of good web applications in general in charge of their websites, you can't help them.

I feel sorry for the poor sod. He's totally out of his depth. Send him back to signing off bus stop posters and hire someone who knows what they're doing with the web.

How very 1998 of them!

I'm just going to stream my thoughts here, although I have confirmed my thoughts that this is the wrong way to go about presenting timetable information on the web AND the site owner's response add any value to frustrated consumers of the site.

I found this a useful article about using PDFs on the web:

http://www.alistapart.com/articles/pdf_accessibility

I jumped straight to the first thing to check: search for the document on Google. It does seem to be "quasi-accessible", but the file itself was created in Adobe Illustrator and weighs in at a 212k download.

I found the logic of:

1. I will explain why PDFs are good for you, Mr. Customer;

2. The lame benefits mentioned above, override any inconvenience you may be having;

3. 'We do review the manner in which we present information to our customers regularly...'

remarkably pathetic. To really finish off the farce, he could have finished the final point with 'We do review the manner in which we present information to our customers regularly, and pat ourselves on the back about it."

Surely it should be tables for tabular data and offer both HTML and PDF options as previously stated.

Considering the arguments:

Consistent formatting/appearance across platforms and devices

It's data!, rows and columns - not a design portfolio - besides, tables have been around for a long time and probably one of the most cross browser compatible forms of markup.

- Better control over printed layout

While this may be true for complex page layout will the average person who uses this really notice or care, they just want to see the data in a simple form in rows and columns.

- Offline access to data

You can use "Save As", on any computer browser and "read later", on most smartphones, but with the ubiquity of mobile devices the whole point of a website is to give up-to-date, live information on screen. Once you move away from the web you lose access to live information - it's not beyond the realms of possibility to give live travel news - they even do it on bus stops now - "the next bus is running 10 minutes late". Try putting that in your pdf.

We should be encouraging people to use the web, instead of printing out more timetables on valuable paper. For those who want a printed timetable they are available and what happens if there is an error in the pdf - do you email/notify all your users that they need to download a new version.

I agree - they should provide both options. They could then check the stats on Google Analytics (which they've already got installed) to see properly "scrutinize the manner in which (they) relay important information to (their) customers" and "review the manner in which (they) present information to our customers regularly".

That would be more effective than trying to convince the few who speak up that PDFs are somehow superior to an HTML table.

I'm sure they would see it's win-win. Easier and cheaper for them to produce and maintain the data for the timetables and more friendly and useful to the end-user.

how about: The world's most used PDF reader is an insecure piece of crap.
Is that alone not reason enough to avoid the format like the plague?

regarding "should be on the WEB, NOT in a file": your browser does not care about the difference, the problem is that it cannot read the PDF format natively, which makes it an unsuitable client for doing so, plugins or not.

I agree that they should have retained the tables and simply added a PDF link.
I can already hear some people going "omg, then we have to update both", but if that's the case, you're doing it all wrong.
Let's take a step back and say we create some sort of API that spits out the data in an arbitrary format, allowing it to be displayed as a table, a PDF or... dare I say it? JSON?

and this doesn't need to be hard, I'm pretty sure there's already some parts of the required logic in the backend. It shouldn't be that complicated to swap out the delivery format...

Why would we want to control how consumers consume our content? Shouldn't the consumer decide how to consume, you know, in case not everyone is exactly the same. PDF is a reasonably accessible format, but nothing beats html for accessibility to the broadest possible audience of consumers. If they wish to have both, then offer both, but html is a must IMO.

* Tried Google Docs with a screenreader (JAWS 11.0.756) and Firefox 3.6.6 the other day. Serious no worky.

Imagine this scenario, surely it is not that far fetched:

I'm at the airport, and want to catch the bus back into town. I'm a first time visitor to the beautiful city of Nottingham.

So I use my phone to check the timetable....

I can't see the timetable! And then for the developr to have the cheek to suggest I should have to find and download a PDF reader....! Astonishing!

Take a look what this site looks like on a mobile simulator:
http://www.shcl.co.uk/blog/2010/05/is-your-website-mobile-friendly.html

As they say in the trade, the customer is ALWAYS RIGHT.

Well done, Nik

Cheers
Susan

We'd always present data in HTML format. Perhaps we'd also offer a PDF download, but we'd never replace HTML with PDF. HTML is the ultimate in accessibility; that's its very purpose.

What if I'm 'viewing' it on a screen reading device or something similar? It will be far easier to use a web page than a PDF. To assume that any solution that uses proprietary technology (PDF format) is superior to an open, widely adopted format like HTML is short-sighted and only holds the web back instead of making real progress. A small number of people might benefit from this, but the majority will lose out greatly.

I can't see the timetable on my mobile device. I've actually flown from there before, so now I'm faced with the fear and uncertainty (and environmental unfriendliness) of having to remember to use a PDF-capable device to print a paper timetable before I even set off, knowing that while I'm on the move I can't access the timetable.

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