Arie Altena

Heathrow Express

Arie Altena

This review is an excerpt from the book Website Graphics Now, an international source book on the best in Global site design. Website Graphics Now was edited by Mediamatic and published in Spring 1999 by BIS Publishers in co-operation with Thames and Hudson.

Heathrow Express is the commercial train service that takes 15 minutes to travel from Heathrow Airport to Paddington in the centre of London. It has a website that functions both as a promotion for the train service and as an information desk where you can find timetables, competition information and special offers. It’s also an on-line counter where you can even buy tickets for the train. There are a lot of websites that give the user these different opportunities, but not many of them have a characteristic design; does.
In addition to timetables and the like, the site hosts diagrams of the platforms and animations of the route you have to follow. A lot of background on the history and technological aspects of the train service is provided, as is some tourist information; of course, the environmental aspects are covered as well (at present, no corporate website can do without this aspect). It even furnishes a number of links to other websites, which open in a new window; only two clicks away, for instance, you can book a flight directly at the British Airways website.
The goal of the site is to aid the customer effectively and to arouse positive feelings about the train by showing how safe and fast it is, and by placing it within the context of an overall London experience.
This site is built with Flash - there is no classic html around on these pages (or should one say movies?), and because it is Flash-only, the site comes across as extremely fluid. Every new ‘page’ loads quickly and seamlessly. Some dynamic elements are used throughout: texts and images fly and circle around before finding their proper spot on the screen. This gives a feeling of movement that fits well with the subject matter. Employing Flash-only screens means that all the texts are actually pictures. The danger in this is that the letters can blur on-screen and become unreadable; this problem is tackled by use of a rather large sans serif font.
The size of the info on screen is fixed, and scrolling is never necessary. The navigation method is rather conventional: a navigation bar with links to the site’s various sections is in the upper part of the screen. Whenever a section divides again into subsections, a new navigation bar, with links to the subsections, replaces the general one. A simple ‘back’ links to the intro screen of the section with the general navigation bar. It is easy to use, and all information can be found quickly. Some screens that fit in different sections, such as the timetable, are actually present in the different sections: a user-friendly and functional redundancy.
Even less experienced Web users will find their way easily here. Much feedback is given, with words growing larger or darker via a mouseover, and there’s always a clear mention of a page’s location within the hierarchy. Generally, you are taken by the hand and lead through the site; some interactive sections are even explained in text. This is a superfluous but helpful element on a site where the typical user will not be willing to spend a minute or so on figuring out how the interface works.
Two critical remarks: after a while, you get weary of the way a new screen is loaded - every other time, the letters come flying in and then settle at the right place (but in all likelihood, a typical user wouldn’t spend enough time at the site to be irritated by this). Furthermore, some images seem to be of substandard quality.
Nevertheless, Heathrow Express’s website is a good example of a transaction site which takes a different route than standard html transaction sites, and which could be accessed equally well as a stand-alone kiosk, from the office desktop computer, or from home.