Olympic ticketing- What went wrong

By Tom Wood @Foolproofer

Once the London 2012 Games got underway the noises of discontent about ticketing turned into a roar, with questions being asked in the media about why large blocks of seats appeared to be empty at a time when public interest in the games was at fever-pitch.

We’ve stayed pretty close to ticketing arrangements since right back in March 2011 and here’s a summary of how it appears to have unfolded.

Coach’s pep talk

The starting point for any event like this is that demand will outstrip supply. Not everyone who wants a ticket can get one. Knowing this the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOGOG) would have been focussed on two outcomes: first, that the allocation of scarce tickets seemed fair; second, that online ticketing system was operationally robust. Having the ticketing system fall over under the weight of demand would be an obvious route to an early embarrassment.

If we had helped design the experience, we would have proposed a couple of other goals. One, can we maximise the number of people that get at least one ticket allocation thus increasing the sense of participation and excitement around the games? Two, can we make the ticketing system a showcase for British digital design? The ticketing experience was the first point of contact the world had with the event itself so it was an opportunity to set the tone for a well-organised, human-centred games.

It looks to us like those last two points were never part of the coach’s brief to the ticketing team.

Qualifying round

That said, the ticketing process got off to a good start in March 2011. The decision to allocate the first tickets through a ballot was sensible. It was ostensibly fair, and gave people time to think about which tickets they wanted to apply for.

There were some ominous signs though. The boast that the Games was ‘proud to only accept Visa’ disenfranchised large numbers of people and gave a strong clue about the commercial priorities of the organisers.

The Ticketmaster platform was presumably selected because it was operationally robust (and, we’d guess, attractive from a cost point of view at the tender stage), but this tried-and-trusted choice was at the expense of the overall user experience. The system has various usability bloopers and, more importantly, some widely understood ecommerce basics were not observed: there was very little information about the tickets people were applying for (what’s the difference between a £40 and a £500 ticket?) and successful applicants were asked to pay for their tickets sometimes weeks before they were told what they had got.

Our biggest criticism was that the site contained such poor information about the ballot process and the ticket buy-back service. While all the media buzz around tickets was that people should humbly apply for a few tickets at less popular events like handball, in fact the suggestion should have been to go for as many tickets as their card credit limit allowed and for the most popular events. If an applicant beat the odds and landed more tickets than they wanted they would have been able to sell back unwanted tickets through the buy-back service leaving them only out of pocket to the tune of the handling fee.

Better information about the ballot would have made more people bolder in their applications, increasing their overall chances of getting a ticket and making sure that the maximum number of people secured at least one allocation. In the end a disproportionate amount of the best tickets fell into the laps of people with big credit card limits (or who had read the site’s small print very carefully).

There’s a fuller analysis of the 2011 ticket ballot in the (PDF) whitepaper we published at the time.


In May 2012 a second tranche of 500,000 tickets were offered on a first-come, first-served basis to people unlucky in the ballot. The outcome was predictable: the site crashed repeatedly. Twitter lit up with tales of frustration. This was the first time we encountered the strange user experience of being shown tickets that were available, only for people then to have them evaporate as they tried to move them into a shopping basket. The image shown here is seared into the consciousness of hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people. The Ticketmaster platform gives no explanation about why this happens, offers no sympathy for the frustration, makes no suggestion about how to avoid it (other than the three rather fatuous ones shown here).

Despite the frustration this round was at least effective at putting half a million tickets in the hands of the patient and the lucky. For those left ticketless at the end of two confusing and time-consuming rounds of allocation, the experience was starting to become wearing. They had been twice told they were invited to a party but been refused entry at the door.


In last days before Olympics and during the games final reserves of tickets were released and tickets returned through the buy-back service were made available on the ticketing site.

At this point cries of frustration turned into a roar. Poor usability made process torture. Hopeful applicants had to use a complicated search feature which was increasingly unnecessary. At these late stages why not just show a list of available, rather than making people play ‘hunt-the-ticket’?

The ‘phantom ticket’ effect became even more pronounced at this stage. We did some research for ITN which showed that in 111 attempts to buy tickets from the site we were successful only 23% of the time taking a seemingly available ticket through to payment stage. Why couldn’t the system show availability in real time rather than making people wait up to 20 minutes to discover that the ticket shown as available was in fact unavailable? Why offer search options for dates and events which were in the past? It’s a violation of the simplest rule of ecommerce: don’t offer for sale what you don’t have in stock. And that rule was broken hundreds of thousands of times a day during the fortnight of the games.

The overall frustration of this is beautifully summarised by this post on BuzzFeed.

While the official site was clearly failing to be the conduit for all the available and empty seats during the first week of the games, LOCOG delivered on its promise to crack down on the secondary market for tickets. Touts outside the Olympic Park were arrested and prosecuted. The popular and not-for-profit site 2012ticketalert.com, which tipped people off on Twitter about new allocations hitting the Ticketmaster site, was blocked.

The Economist ran a leader article calling on the authorities to loosen up and allow the market to match willing buyers with willing sellers, but there was no change in the official line from LOCOG on this.

Post-race analysis

LOCOG went for the apparent safety of the Ticketmaster platform, but this elderly platform was not particularly suited to distributing tickets for this huge event. Small, basic usability issues were amplified by the volume and frequency of users. Applicants were given poor information before and during the application process, missing a chance to get tickets into the hands of the maximum number of people. The wealthy and the well-informed got the lion’s share. Finally, failure to anticipate, and control, the secondary market led to empty seats at hundreds of events for which there were thousands of willing buyers.

But from our perspective the biggest miss was the opportunity to show the world the excellence of experience design talent in the UK. At each stage of ticketing the experience didn’t get beyond basic usability no-nos to create something friendly, empathetic and charming – like so much of the real-world Olympic experience in London turned out to be.

A pity. Over to you Rio.

Tom Wood

I’m one of the two founders of Foolproof. Within projects I usually take a role both in planning our approach and in the generative phases of design. I’m also active in gathering client and customer needs into the design space. My particular talent is helping senior stakeholders see and understand the customer’s world in richer detail, and helping them work out how to respond.

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