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Everyday UI

critiquing user interfaces

The best user interfaces go unnoticed. It feels natural; intuitive. There’s a seamlessness to the workflow that just feels obvious. Where bad design sticks out like a sore thumb, good design is invisible.


While the Amtrak website has improved over the past few years, a few critiques and changes to its user experience are also overdue, especially as ridership continues to increase.

From the get-go, the home page brings you immediately to ticket buying on a scrolling home page. For all other visitors not looking to buy tickets, the relative obscurity of the ‘other options’ button next to ‘book tickets’ button, coupled with the low contrast on the larger background, makes it confusing.


How much a problem this is for Amtrak’s web visitors depends on what percentage of users need a fast way to buy tickets on the website, relative to all other users. While this data is not available, a suggestion could be a chatbot or question icon that accompanies users as they scroll through the page, perhaps placed visibly but not distractingly on the right corner. For example, it could be the mockup below:

From a troubleshooting standpoint, instead of going to ‘FAQs’ or calling the hotline (which is time consuming and limited), this chatbot can serve users more individually and immediately. Of course, this is assuming that it works well and is sufficiently tested.

Catching Errors

For choosing the ‘from’ and ‘to’ options, instead of using a time consuming drop-down menu, options appear below the search input as users type, for example when users type in “Providence” or “PVD”. This also works when users directly type in station names, such as “Penn” for New York’s “Penn Station”.


Due to the flexibility of the inputs users can put in, this search tool is very effective for usability. For catching errors, in case users do not choose an option, a helpful error message in red appears to remind users to “Enter a valid station name.” This is helpful in the workflow by ensuring that users cannot click ‘Find Trains’ until two valid embarkation and destination points are entered (called out in red below):

Referring back to the main home page, whilst it scrolls smoothly, there is no arrow or moving bar to indicate that it is scrollable to the bottom where there is a ‘Track your Train’ tool.

Train Status

I would assume that the two most urgent needs for users on the home page would be ticket buying and checking the status of their train (though I acknowledge this would require more insight through user testing and research), and while there is the ‘Train Status’ option on the menu bar, I think that two-thirds of the scrolling home page does not need to be dedicated to advertisements about bonus points or subscription credit cards.

On an almost daily basis, as a subscriber to their newsletters and advertisements, Amtrak sends an email about the latest promotion for points, discounted ticket prices, or a credit card subscription. While I understand that from a marketing standpoint this is reinforced on their website, from a usability standpoint it would make sense if ‘Train Status’ was made more visible next to, above, or below ticket buying. The mockup below demonstrates how spatially and aesthetically this could look like:

Adding to Cart

As a user and from a designer’s standpoint, adding your selected ticket into your cart is not intuitive nor obvious. For example, pressing ‘Find Trains’ takes you to a page with all the train schedules and the options for which class or price you would like to choose. However, once you have selected your option, it is not actually added to cart, and there is no ‘submit’ option at the bottom to take you to confirmation for payment. Instead, you are required to click the small green ‘Add to Cart’ button to progress to payment.

From a usability perspective, this is confusing and not easily memorable. Instead, I would suggest a ‘submit’ button at the bottom of the page:

As mental and conceptual models continue to evolve, I hope the Amtrak website will build user feedback into its developmental changes.

  • Iterating between 'incremental' and 'radical' changes to the existing website has shown me not every website needs a radical redesign to be effective, but also small changes might not suffice.

  • Further user testing and feedback is required to determine design direction.

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