Why the details matter: Polishing the user experience at VUE cinemas

Those of you who don’t know me may be shocked to learn that, at times, I can be quite the pedant. (Those who do know me are no doubt laughing at the understatement.) Some like-minded people find it amusing. (It’s generally meant in jest.) Others don’t care. But I imagine that several find it massively annoying, and think me quite the arse for doing it. But despite this, I can’t help but feel that, sometimes, it matters.

The following observation is, I think, not pedantry for its own sake.

Back in January, I visited one of the VUE cinemas in London, walked up to their bank of ticket machines, and was confronted with three options, shown in the photo below.

A separate option to Buy Tickets Today? Buy Tickets lets me choose the date, including today. Why the redundant option?
A separate option to Buy Tickets Today? Buy Tickets lets me choose the date, including today. Why the redundant option?

At the bottom you’ll see the option to ‘Pickup Tickets’, which seems fairly self explanatory. There’s also ‘Buy Tickets’, which I understand equally well. But what does ‘Buy Tickets Today’ mean? Of course I want to buy them today – I’m at the machine, aren’t I? I don’t want to have to come back to buy them tomorrow.

You’ve probably figured it out; what they really mean is ‘Buy Tickets [for] Today’. And frankly, I figured it out too, and so would almost everyone, if not actually everyone. So, is it really a problem? I’m going to argue that it is.

There are many reasons why the label is confusing. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is the truncated language, which omits the word ‘for’ and thus changes the meaning. However, for reasons I’m about to explain, even if the label read ‘Buy Tickets for Today’, the button would nonetheless remain both redundant and unintuitive.

It’s redundant because selecting the ‘Buy Tickets’ option allows the user to buy tickets for any day, today included. So making them choose between the two buy ticket options is entirely without purpose.

It’s not intuitive because users don’t initially distinguish between buying tickets for today, and buying them for other days. When someone walks up to the ticket machine, all they’re thinking is that they would like to buy tickets.

This would be simple enough to verify; all VUE would need to do is to stop a few people as they approach the machine and ask them what they’re going to do. I would contend that regardless of whether they were buying tickets for that day, later that day, or for a future date, they would all simply say that they’re going to ‘buy tickets.’

(I cannot, of course, speak definitively for the ways in which everyone thinks. Everyone is different. However, my experience, and education, of human cognition teaches me that in the main, people are unlikely to distinguish between these two slightly different tasks. They are the same task: buying tickets. Choosing the exact date for which one wishes to purchase those tickets is a sub-task, a detail.)

The information architecture isn’t mapping to the goal in the user’s head, and the more the user has to translate between the goals in their head and the options afforded to them by the user interface (UI), the harder it is for them to use the software. (This is commonly referred to in human-computer interaction as the gulf of execution.)

But to go back a few paragraphs, it’s true that this isn’t really stopping anyone from buying tickets. In the end, people who are momentarily confused (such as myself) ultimately figure it out. I’m not seeing a horde of perplexed cinema patrons wandering around the car park tapping on thin air, the nonsensical UI having induced them into a stupor, all still trying buy tickets on the haunting touch screen display in their minds.

But I feel that, a momentary confusion though it is, that moment is everything. For some people it won’t matter, but for others, it creates a noticeable discord, which ultimately reflects badly on VUE, giving as it does the impression that we, the customers, aren’t being thought of, and ultimately making us feel a little inconvenienced, or aggrieved, or perhaps irked. However slight that feeling may be, it’s there, and it’s avoidable.

Now whilst we’re all here, a couple of other things cropped up during this same visit of mine. One of those was that a machine was out of order. (See the photo below.) Fair enough; things go wrong. But given that the VUE staff have noticed that the machine wasn’t working (indicated by the sign they’ve put on top), why have they decided to leave the machine on? I can only imagine that there’s no easy way to turn it off, because otherwise there’s no reason for customers to see the scary error message.

They know the machine isn't working, so why not turn it off instead of letting people see this?
They know the machine isn’t working, so why not turn it off instead of letting people see this?

Alternatively, websites often inject a bit of personality, humour, and above all empathy into their error pages, for when things go wrong. (Such as Twitter’s over capacity page.) How about the same thing here?

After I made it past the broken machine and the confusing buttons, the two tickets I purchased, along with my receipt, spewed out of the machine so fast that they all ended up on the floor. Mildly annoying, slightly inconvenient, easily solved.

This happened whilst I was busy returning my credit card to my wallet. My reflexes are, alas, not cat-like.
This happened whilst I was busy returning my credit card to my wallet. My reflexes are, alas, not cat-like.

It doesn’t have to be this way! (He cried from his soapbox.) It’s possible to create experiences without the inconsistencies, the confusion, the inconvenience, the lack of forethought into what people may actually go through when they use your services. And as the tagline of this blog says, those experiences may be digital, like the confusing UI, or they may not, like the tickets falling to the floor. But in either case, the approach to solving these problems is the same, and the details always matter. Maybe not to everyone, maybe not all the time. But to some people, and often enough.

Above all, the question is this: Why settle for an only passable user experience, when you could have one that’s delightful?


  1. Pudding Croxall says:

    Sir, I salute your pedantry. I cannot comment on the veracity of your argument against VUE cinemas’ ticket machines, as I have not been to a cinema for a good 400 years. £10 to watch a film, you say? When I could just buy a used DVD off Amazon of a better film, for about £3? Somehow I’m managing to resist this tempting offer…

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