Oyster Cards are coming to get you
Russell Degnan

Stumbling around the web today, I cam across an interesting article on the user design deficiencies of the Oyster Card in London:

The premise behind the Oyster Card is that people using it prepay their fares online. Then, when they walk into a Tube station, they "touch in" [...] When they leave their destination station, they "touch out" in much the same way. Their journey fee is then deducted from their prepay account. [...]

It's a robust system which allows thousands of commuters to make their way to work each day, and on the whole it has that magic quality needed by any such large-scale, mission-critical system: it just works. However, it's not without its usability issues. Perhaps usability wasn't top of the designers' list of criteria when creating the Oyster Card system. But then, its marketing is full of bubbly claims about how it's much more convenient (etc etc) than the traditional paper-age Travelcard system. [...]

[T]he trouble with the Oyster Card is that at certain Tube stations, it’s quite easy to walk out without going through one of the 'proper' ticket barriers; and often, the ticket barriers are left open so it's easy to simply walk straight through. In fact the hordes of commuters are often herded through various exits, and with a thousand people pushing behind you to get out into the sunlight, it's really very easy to forget to 'touch out'. TfL's solution is simple: if this happens, give the commuter the arse-end of the doubt, and charge them the maximum possible fare that they might conceivably have travelled. Nice.

This resonates in Melbourne for two reasons. The first is, despite the obvious obnoxiousness of a system that charges full price tickets for forgetting, or being unable to 'touch out' the new Myki Smart Card Ticketing System has exactly the same flaw. In fact it seems to have been introduced because such a technique is 'best-practice' on the London Underground. As good an example as any, of the misguided glorification of 'best practice' that occurs across our public sector.

The second reason I have touched on before, and that is the generally low quality of user-interface design on Melbourne's public transport system. Notice the hand wringing over fare evasion at the Department of Treasury? Or the delightfully amusing signs berating you for beign a fare evader? Those are both the result of poor system design, but blamed on the user. ie. Us. As Matt Stephens explains, London also blames its commuters, something we will no doubt, get to see for ourselves:

If you forget to close the transaction by touching out, it really is a big deal. The "fix" in this case is to constantly remind everyone (not just Oyster users) to remember to touch in and touch out. So, walking through the Tube, we are now faced with condescending announcements from sneery-voiced announcers, along the lines of: "“Got an Oyster Card? Well, when you start and finish your journey, you must touch in and out, otherwise we'll charge you full fare. This is for your benefit, not ours."

I disagree however, that this is primarily a system design issue. It is not that usability has been ignored; rather, the cheaper, even more beneficial solution has been adopted because of over-indulgence by the authorities. There is no way the end-product would exhibit these flaws if not touching out gave a commuter the lowest priced ticket. The revenue losses would be obscene.

Similarly, Melbourne's poor system, soon to make us all suffer the indignity of trying to 'touch out' our Myki cards as we exit over-crowded trams, remains poor because of the indulgence of the government.

Whereas the failure to stop system abuse in a private company results in lost revenue, public transport can fall back on, and even benefit from a user...

... being unable to purchase a tram ticket with notes - despite the numerous difficulties commuters can have finding a MetCard seller on a Sunday/in the suburbs/when the tram is coming, and the dubious legality of not accepting legal tender - resulting in a fine.

... forgetting to validate a ticket - an easy mistake to make, though of course the public transport companies have never made a mistake, such as cancelling dozens of trains a day - instead of the 'fair' step of requiring a ticket purchase, resulting in a fine.

... being unable to understand the ticketing system, either the whereabouts of zoning, the CitySaver, or the 2-hour versus Daily ticket conundrum, resulting in a fine.

... encountering a broken ticket machine, either refusing to supply, or to validate a ticket, also potentially resulting in a fine.

... and many more, simple and common scenarios.

Most of these never occured when conductors were on trams, because humans are very good at solving unexpected issues. Computer systems are not. However, their limitations, and the cost of collecting large numbers of small transactions off mobile users, do not justify blaming that user, nor does it justify the indulgence of the operator at the expense of hapless, and increasingly disgruntled commuters. Better systems should be tried until one works. Alas, government prefers an easier way out.

Sterner Matters 12th January, 2007 02:27:47   [#] 

Comments

Slow motion daydream
I'm glad that "myki" (pronounced "we're out of ideas, let's get all gen y with the name" - personally I think they should have gone with one of those cute celeb contractions style names like Bennifer or TomKat - maybe "Buttrain" would have worked) will slow our trams down with the need to scan as you get off as I personally find that our trams are far too fast - our goal should be to get the speed below a 10 kph average. Perhaps this is part of the wipe off 5 campaign...
Pearcey  12th January, 2007 10:59:19  

They are coming to get us
Why not make an entire exit point a hot spot for people to "touch out"? Rather than people having to actively touch out, they could do it passively as they exit the station.

There are probably tons of other suggestions. But as usual, the government probably went with the company that gave the slickest sales pitch and the lousiest product.
Aaron  12th January, 2007 20:30:19  

Oyster Cards are coming to get you
Aaron, in short, yes, there are. Especially for trains where there are always barriers. Doing auto-touching on trams is more complex, since you'd need to line the doors with the effectively the anti-theft things they have in retail stores. But again, not impossible.

As I said though, the government prefers a cheap and basic solution, because when it doesn't work they can just punish you, the user. Hardly fair, but what are you going to do about it?
Russ  16th January, 2007 22:29:12  

They are coming!
Well we apparently live in a democracy. The problem being that the opposition are worse when it comes to managing public transport so it's not like we have a viable choice if we kick out Labor at the next election.

We only have the choice to complain loudly, participate in civil disobedience and take it to the streets. Maybe when it's a bit cooler and there is nothing on television worth watching and there is nothing much else to do in this lively city of ours.
Aaron  17th January, 2007 11:05:02  

Bread and Circuses!
Unfortunately, while people are, on ocassion, remarkably angry about things like this, because it works (more or less) the majority of the time, there isn't much call for a review. That is to say, the goverment is incompetent, but not incompetent enough to change.
Russ  17th January, 2007 19:10:27