Policy: An app a day keeps users away.

Is the Indian Railways’ overload of user-facing mobile apps driving away passengers?

IR now has more than 50 mobile apps available for use by the public at large, according to a report carried by the daily Mint. The report also adds that the Google Play store has more than 250 applications related to various IR services.

Such a huge number of apps is nothing but a recipe for user confusion, which is quite apparent today. For example, for a single journey, here are the number of apps you might need:

  • IRCTC Connect: To book a ticket for the journey, make modifications or cancel ticket.
  • NTES: To keep tabs on your train and ensure you (and the train) are on time.
  • IRCTC Retiring Room Booking: Should you choose to avail the railways’ own dormitories or retiring room facilities, you need another site to book them.
  • IRCTC Catering: Should you wish to have food enroute from one of the restaurants registered on IRCTC’s platform, you need this app.
  • COMS: Should you want to lodge a complaint regarding poor services, overcharging, bad behaviour, dirty coaches, etc, you need to install this app. Else, you need a social media app like Twitter to reach out to IR authorities.
  • UTS: If you visit a city like Mumbai by train, chances are you will hop onto Mumbai’s vast suburban network to reach your actual destination from the long-distance train’s terminus. In this case, you need yet another app called UTS to book suburban tickets.
  • RPF/Police: Several zonal / divisional RPF organisations seem to have developed their own complaint apps. In case of theft or any security related issues, you need to find an app for the zone or division you are in, sign up, and lodge complaint!

That is a staggering 7 apps for just one journey. To add to the confusion, IR launched Rail Saarthi, an app that merely acts as a wrapper for most of the apps above. Thus, in order to get full functionality, you have to not only install all these apps (or rather, their special versions designed only to work with Rail Saarthi) but also install the wrapper Rail Saarthi.

App Deluge
Some of the many ‘official’ IR apps among the hundreds of ‘unofficial’ ones.

Because of what seems to be a lack of an integrated vision and strategy, more user experience gaffes result. You have to login to the IRCTC app with a PIN, and then again log into the UTS app with its own username and password. Needless to say, this multitude of single-function apps is a UX nightmare. It may have resulted in far fewer people being able to use all the functionality than potentially can.

More worryingly, the Google Play store also sports a number of shady copycat apps that offer very little actual functionality but bombard the user with ads, their low-overhead source of revenue. Many of these feature descriptions and names designed to confuse novice users, and often get ranked higher than the official apps themselves.

If this wasn’t enough, IR also has a multitude of mobile apps meant for internal use. Many of these apps were not developed by the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), the nodal IT services arm of IR. Several are one-off projects initiated by various functions, production or maintenance units of the organisation, claim insiders.

Such apps are neither connected to any central network for the most part but are likely to be poorly built and ill maintained or may even be abandoned as the initiator is transferred to another location or function.

If this situation has to be rectified, IR needs to assign the task of creating a single user-friendly passenger facing app for all possible use cases to a single organisation like CRIS. However, If the UTS and other apps are an indication, CRIS is not very good at this. Therefore, the mandate should be to hire the best developers to make such an app, rather than CRIS designing the app themselves.

E-commerce websites manage to sell everything from a safety pin to TVs and refrigerators over a single app.  We are certain one app can take care of all possible passenger needs for a train journey. IR needs to take another look at their mobile app policy immediately.

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