Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cycle Hire Software Woes

We like London Cycle Hire.

Some of the problems with it have been unavoidable, or at least forgiveable. Predicting demand is difficult to do, and shortages of bikes and docking station saturation are symptoms of the enthusiastic take-up by users.

However, we don't like the computer systems that run it.
There's been a long-running saga of software glitches that have plagued the scheme from its inception, which have been exacerbated by poor customer service.

Registration (or customer acquisition) is a well-known problem in software development and has been solved many times. In the Cycle Hire case,  it's a simple case of capturing billing details, payment method and a couple of preferences. There's really no excuse for getting this wrong, yet users experienced various problems, from being unable to use a name with an apostrophe (for example, O'Reilly), to problems activating the key.

Users who requested multiple keys ended up getting double- or triple-charged even when they only hired one bike. It's pretty obvious how the customer would expect the system to behave: you should get charged for the number of bikes you hire. Yet they got the business analysis wrong and ended up with truly bizarre behaviour, and - a cardinal sin - overcharged the customers.

After such a troublesome launch, it's understandable that TfL wanted to get the bugs ironed out before the casual user rollout. Yet again they failed. Embarrassingly, Kulveer Ranger was unable to use the system at the press launch, and he was not alone: on the launch day itself, Serco reportedly had to scramble engineers to each docking station to fix the problem manually. It's not like the system had been overwhelmed by demand - this was one of the coldest days of the year.

I'm not going to point the finger here. We don't know the root causes, we don't know whether the software folks had adequate time and resources, and we don't know what conditions they were working under. But that said, there is a pretty comprehensive catalogue of significant failings here, and TfL need to be answerable to the public for what has gone wrong.

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