Featured case study: NHS
How I helped the NHS rapidly build a brand new product.
Written by Harry Roberts on CSS Wizardry.
Fair warning: This is a completely off-topic and personal post; no CSS architecture advice, no performance tips, no geeky stuff at all.
At the weekend, Naomi and I found ourselves in Scarborough. We were both speaking at #TIDE on the Friday, and were due to return from Scarborough on the Saturday. We boarded a train in the afternoon and headed back to Leeds—where I live—with a view to heading to Newcastle—where Naomi lives—from there. We’d have a pretty tight turnaround hopping from train to train in different cities, but it should certainly be doable.
We got back to Leeds just fine. We were planning on heading to the Lake District on Sunday (the next day) to climb a mountain or two, so I had to go back to my house to pick up a tonne of stuff. We were booked on the 1708 train to Newcastle, and still needed to pick our tickets up from the station. This is where things started to turn a little pear-shaped.
Anyone who’s ever had to pick up pre-paid train tickets before will know that you need to insert the debit/credit card you paid with into the machine, as well as providing a booking code—that the train company email to you—in order to have the tickets printed. Time was really ticking; it just hit 1700 and the train was leaving in eight minutes. Naomi’s phone decided it would be the perfect time to play up and not fetch her email with the booking code in it, so we had to get my phone out and log her into the GMail website. I placed her phone and purse on top of the ticket machine whilst she used my phone and I gathered our luggage, of which there was a lot (two cases, two backpacks, two pairs of walking boots, a giant handbag, coats and more).
Once we finally got our tickets printed, we grabbed our stuff and started to sprint for the train. As we passed the departures board we spotted 1708 Newcastle … 16A. Dammit. Platform 16A is right at the complete other side of the station, the Newcastle train never normally leaves from there. We ran as fast as we could and hopped onto the train with a matter of seconds to spare. We had seats booked on Carriage D. Odd, there’s no Carriage D. Ah well, we were just glad to be on the train! Then, the announcement:
Welcome to the 1708 Trans-Pennine Express service to Liverpool.
Damn. That’s not Newcastle. We were on the wrong train. It turns out that there are two trains that leave Leeds at 1708; one to Newcastle and one to Liverpool. We were on the wrong 1708 (which explains the unusual platform and the lack of Carriage D).
We worked out the next station was Huddersfield, about 25 minutes away, so we could hop off there and make it back to Leeds and start again. Naomi looked in her bag for her phone, to check the time. Shit. It wasn’t in her bag. It was still on top of the ticket machine back in Leeds. Along with her purse.
Not only were we barrelling along in the complete opposite direction, to the complete wrong city, Naomi had lost her phone and purse (containing cash, cards, ID…). Everything that could have gone wrong had done.
As an interesting aside, we tried to log into the iCloud website on my phone so that Naomi could use the Find My iPhone tool; Apple hijack iPhone visitors and show them a stripped back version of the site which allows you to do nothing of any real use. The iCloud site was completely useless to me on my iPhone. Mobile users do not want different content, Apple!
It’s important to note that we both realise everything was entirely our own fault; rushing about, not reading departure boards thoroughly, me leaving her purse and phone on top of a machine rather than keeping hold of it. Entirely our own fault.
How I helped the NHS rapidly build a brand new product.
We arrived in Huddersfield and Naomi went straight to the customer service desk to ask if they could phone Leeds station directly (there are only 0845 numbers online) and report/enquire about a lost phone and purse. The guy (we didn’t manage to catch his name) was incredibly helpful; he rang around, waited for a call back, and came to find us to update us. No good news, but he was incredibly helpful.
We waited in Huddersfield for the next train back to Leeds (which, annoyingly, continued on to Newcastle). Then it dawned on me; our tickets we were clutching were for a specific train with specific seats at a specific time. They weren’t transferable for use on any time train, and the only train we could legitimately use them one, we’d missed. Anyone from the UK knows that train tickets are not cheap, and the ones we’d paid for were now totally useless. Buying two last-minute tickets to Newcastle from Leeds was going to be a costly affair.
We tried calling Naomi’s phone a few times, no answer. One time we called it sounded like someone hung up the call on us. We were pretty resigned to the fact that someone had probably taken it for themselves. That’s what people who find expensive phones and purses full of money do, right?
We were in the wrong city, with a missing phone and purse (two incredibly costly, important and personal items to lose), with two useless train tickets, and the realisation that we’d have to buy two more. Not the Saturday we were hoping for.
We got back to Leeds feeling completely dejected, resigned to the fact that Naomi was missing her phone and purse (and all that was in it). The train tickets were the least of our worries, really. They were a solvable problem.
We walked toward the automatic ticket machines in the hope that the purse and phone would still be sat there but… nope. Obviously not. About an hour had passed and Leeds is a very busy station. The phone and purse had been spotted and had gone.
Naomi turned toward the manned ticket booths and bam! In one of the windows, a woman was serving a customer with the purse and phone sat there next to her! The feeling of relief was amazing.
We joined the back of the queue (we’re British, after all) and waited until we were at the booth. We spoke to the woman who verified that it was actually Naomi’s stuff and she handed it over. It turned out a girl (who didn’t leave her name, unfortunately) spotted them both and handed them both in. The money was still in the purse, as were the cards, the phone was intact. Everything was accounted for! We couldn’t believe that someone had been so honest. It’s sad to admit but… you never expect that. We thanked the woman profusely, tried to get our heads round our luck, and then walked off, stunned.
The next problem we had was the fact we were holding invalid tickets and looking down the barrel of a very expensive, train-shaped gun. We went to the customer information desk and explained our situation:
It’s important to reiterate that the above was all our fault. No one owed us anything, no one was obliged to make anything right for us. We also made the man at the help desk very aware of the fact that we knew this, and that we just wanted some advice, not handouts or favours.
He explained that, yes, our tickets are now completely invalid; they were for specific seats on a specific train at a specific time, all of which we’d missed. He was going by the book, these were the rules, and it was entirely our fault we were in this situation. We completely accepted that. We didn’t argue or kick off. Our only remaining option was to spend £91 on two new tickets on the next train to Newcastle. It sucked, but I guess that’s the price you pay for being careless. Plus, the iPhone and purse we could have lost would have been worth far more than £91. Given the situation, we were already in some bizarre kind of profit.
We thanked him very much for his advice, and were about to set off to buy new
tickets with our tails between our legs, when he suddenly grabbed his phone and
Wait a second. We had no idea what was about to happen.
He made a call to someone, and asked them to meet him, with us, on the station concourse.
It’s worth noting that man helping us (who I shall keep anonymous) worked for a
completely different train company to the one we needed. He had even less cause
to help us than anyone else, yet he was making a call for us to ‘sort something
out’. He asked Naomi and me to follow him to meet this other guy, and said that
he couldn’t make any promises. I couldn’t stop thanking him for any help he was
giving us, whether it paid off or not. I was so grateful that, despite
everything being entirely our fault, this guy was helping us out so much. He
turned to us both as he walked and he said
You know why I’m helping you? It’s
because you’re polite.
It’s because you’re polite.
He went on to explain that he normally deals with righteous, self-entitled and rude individuals that think that everyone out there owes them something. That they aren’t accountable for their own mistakes, and that people should run around making everything right for them. To me, these are some of the most annoying people in the world. I do everything in my power to make sure I’m not like this and I know full well that Naomi is the same. The guy helping us was grateful of the fact that, despite our sucky situation, we remained polite and calm and decent. I have always been this way, and throughout my life a lot of people have commented on how polite I am. I have my parents to thank for this; they brought me up knowing that manners are everything. They tell you a lot about a person, they have the power to make or break someone’s day, and they cost nothing. You could lose everything, your health, your house, your car, your money, you could lose almost anything, but you can always keep your manners. Always.
I was so amazed that just being polite—something I know Naomi and I are as a matter of course—was so much to this guy. What I see, and expect, as normal behaviour, was enough for this man to call up a friend and reign in a favour for two careless individuals. I was very proud of me and Naomi at that moment, but also really pissed off at all the rude people this guy must have to deal with day-to-day.
We went and met the second guy, who was just as awesome. The two were friends who’d worked together a while and they had some great banter and the four of us just had a bit of a laugh whilst they worked out how to sort our situation for us.
The second guy (again, anonymous) helped work out a plan of attack for us so that we could get home without having wasted one set of tickets and having to buy a whole new set. It involved him writing a note for the conductor of the next train to Newcastle (due in two hours’ time) explaining that if the conductor needed to verify anything, he could find him on a particular platform in York, where he would be in two hours’ time.
We couldn’t believe that two people went so far out of their way to help us out when everything was entirely our fault.
After we sorted the logistics of everything, we all stood about for a few
minutes having a chat and a laugh. They asked what we did as jobs, and then they
shared some of the horror stories from them own; verbal and physical assault
included. For these guys, two polite people seemed like such a breath of fresh
air, and that sucks. We thanked them profusely, took their names, and said out
grateful farewells. The second guy left us with:
It’s not a big deal. His
‘not a big deal’ was a huge deal to me and Naomi.
Anyway, with a two hour wait, Naomi and I grabbed some food and sat just stunned by how helpful people had been to us. The whole encounter reaffirmed two main things for me (after ‘don’t be so freaking careless’):
We finally got moving, on the later train to Newcastle. We presented the
conductor with our story, our tickets, and the note that had been scribbled on
the back of one of them by [redacted]. The conductor smiled and said
know [redacted], great guy. and let us on our way without question. He was
a great guy, and I love that other people know this about him. Being polite
makes people have fond memories of you, being a jerk does not.
Then, when we got to York, we couldn’t believe it but [redacted]—who was there as he said he would be—actually got on the train, came to find us, and asked us if everything had gone smoothly! He left the platform he was stationed on and made a point of coming to check we’d made it on the train safely and were on our way. Unbelievable!
I’m really proud of, and grateful for, so many people in this whole story:
So, the next time you’re tempted to give someone a hard time, think about whether they deserve it, whether they owe you any favours at all anyway, and whether a slightly different approach might yield a much more favourable result.
I know the above seem like very 21st Century, first-world problems—and they were—but it was a potential loss of hundreds of pounds, and a few peoples’ smaller actions completely undid and remedied that, and not one of them owed us that favour at all. It was ‘because we were polite’.
Hi there, I’m Harry Roberts. I am an award-winning Consultant Web Performance Engineer, designer, developer, writer, and speaker from the UK. I write, Tweet, speak, and share code about measuring and improving site-speed. You should hire me.
You can now find me on Mastodon.
I am available for hire to consult, advise, and develop with passionate product teams across the globe.
I specialise in large, product-based projects where performance, scalability, and maintainability are paramount.