The TripMaster 5000 Needs a Tune-Up

Friday, January 21, 2005, at 10:54AM

By Eric Richardson

I was looking up some transit routes from my apartment to work just a minute ago and clicked on the "Advanced Trip Planner" link on the Metro's home page. It appears they're rolling out a new application here, and feature-wise it seems pretty cool. But when it comes to bugs, good programming, and usability -- egads.

Now certainly some friends will tell you that I've never been much for usability in my own apps, but I think I have a decent handle on what it should look like, even if I don't do the best job of implementing it in my personal projects. I like a lot of the ideas in the new Trip Planner, but implementation is the key. Let's take a quick look at some of the highlights.

To play along at home, especially for those of you not from LA, try mapping a route from "6th / Spring" to "JPL", leaving at 8:00am. To make life more fun, let's choose "include rail" under Mode, and let's say we're cool to walk a half mile. It'll ask you to clarify the starting point; choose the 90013 zip code choice.

(For some reason I started typing the rest as if I was talking to the Trip Planner app...)

Right away, before I even click submit on the first page, I notice HTML errors. For instance an "&nbsp" that misses the closing semi-colon and therefore shows up as text (look between the walk and access choices). There are some others, but not ones that are visible.

So now I've got seven trip options. They're sorted by time, but they all claim to be 60-90 minutes, so that's pointless. And that's what you're sorting by, not the actual route time. Option 1 is 1:16, while option 3 is only 1:06. The fare options all show $1.25+, too, so you've told me absolutely nothing there either. I tend to figure those are the two things I'm going to choose by, so your options are just going to confuse me.

I like the mode icons; seeing at a glance trains vs. buses vs. express buses is nice. The "route numbers" for trains are pretty pointless, though. Quick: Is MT804 the Red Line or the Gold Line? You like icons... Make the rail lines distinct icons.

I actually think you like icons too much. For each trip option you waste a column on clock, footprint, and dollar sign icons that are going to be exactly the same for each trip. Make them useful or get rid of them. Make the clock change color depending on the time range. Make the fare add dollar signs as cost goes up. Either that or lose 'em.

If I click "Go Back" from here you take me back to the starting point clarification. I don't want that. I already clarified my starting point. If I want to change a walking or mode option give me my clarified start in the text box there. And when I do go back to the claification screen you don't even remember what I picked.

Speaking of going back to change mode or walk options: now that I selected a mode it shows up twice in that dropdown. Believe me, I understand how much easier that is than actually taking the time to choose out of a list which option to select, but putting it in twice is the lazy-man's way.

Back to my trip options...

I like that the line choices link to a list of that line's stops. But what the heck are "ON" and "OFF". I assume they're something like Peak/Non-Peak. I wouldn't assume most people to guess that, though.

Hmmm... Maybe I took too long:

Table 'TRANSIT.TMP_pmm3875y' doesn't exist

So I back up and re-run my search to get my trip options again. Now I want to sort by walking distance, but -- what's this? I click on the radio box for walking, click sort, and I get... the route details for the route that was selected. Tsk tsk.

But whatever... Let's move to trip details. Let's select that 7th route, the one that starts with the DASH bus. What's that, you didn't know "DA D" meant DASH Route D? Silly you.

I like your maps, even if they aren't smart enough to put the icon on the corner you tell me to go to. I do wish you'd show me the route on your map, too, not just the points.

But I don't want to be too hard... I like the idea. I just hope you didn't spend too much money on this. The fun changelog type comments I find in the HTML tell me you've been working on this since September. Well, keep at it. You're not done yet.