Friday, October 15, 2010

Systems Design: Making a New Feature (Nearly) Too Much Trouble

EDIT: Since I wrote this BART has finally implemented an integration between parking payment and the Clipper card. It's a little more complicated to set up than it should be, but it works. I'll leave the rant up because the meta-point still stands.

This article will look like a random rant about public transportation, but it's really a random rant about bad systems design, especially when extending an existing system without understanding the interactions between the new and the old.

Every day I ride BART (the San Francisco bay area subway system) to and from work. The default procedure for BART is to put some cash or credit into a machine and get a ticket of that value. Then every time you want to ride you run the ticket through a turnstile, ride the train, then run the ticket through an exit turnstile to have value deducted from your ticket based on the distance between the stations. Keep doing that until the ticket is nearly depleted and then add some more value at a ticket machine.

In order to minimize the number of trips to the ticket vending machine I was buying the max value it would allow, $60. But the paper tickets are easily torn, easily lost, and um, easily destroyed in a washing machine. Before you ask yes I did. Fortunately it was a nearly depleted ticket.

Losing $60 on a maxed ticket wouldn't be pleasant. So I decided to get a Clipper card, an RFID based card that you can tie to a prepaid or credit account and use for BART, Muni (San Francisco's municipal bus and light-rail system), and Cal-Train (a commuter rail that connects San Francisco to Silicon Valley). Sounds like a good thing. But in practice it turns out to be (nearly) too much trouble.

I skipped over a point in describing my default procedure with tickets. You see, I have to park at the BART station near my house and BART charges a small $1 fee for parking. So the real procedure is: feed the ticket to the entrance turnstile, use the ticket at another machine to pay for parking, then ride the train, etc. That's important because, get this, you can't use the Clipper card for parking. I have no idea why not, but you can't. Period.

Okay, that's annoying. But I knew that when I got the card so I had a plan: I would continue to buy BART tickets but for much smaller amounts, like $10, in order to pay for parking. It wouldn't be perfect but still much better. Washing away, er accidentally tearing up $10 is much less painful than losing $60.

It was a good plan. But my plan was dashed by some system designer's brain fart. The machine that accepts a parking fee will not accept your ticket unless it has been used at the entrance turnstile. So if I enter using the Clipper card I can't use a ticket for parking.

If you're mentally asking "WTF?" at this point then you and I are on the same page. The designers had to work extra to add this restriction. Maybe it seemed like a good idea before the card system existed: somebody buying parking with a ticket not marked for entrance may have jumped the turnstile. Or something. I don't know. I do know that with the new system it's just a way to render the Clipper card (nearly) too much trouble.

Why too much trouble? Because other than tickets the parking machine only takes cash and only in $1 and $5 denominations. Not credit cards, not debit cards, not twenties. Nope. Only ones and fives. I don't know about you but I often have nothing but twenties because that's what ATMs dispense. Besides, the goal of me getting the Clipper card was to get rid of a bit of paper, not create a need to carry more bits of paper (with pictures of dead white guys).

The card is now very nearly too much trouble. Nearly. I'll still keep the Clipper card. I can use it for my return trips and thus cut the value of my tickets in half. And I can use it for Muni and Cal-Train. But my original goal, getting rid of paper, is dead, slaughtered on the altar of bad systems design.

Now let me get meta. The above sad but true story is an object lesson in extending an existing system. The next time you add a feature to a system you're working on ask yourself if interactions with existing features are going to cause your users problems. At the very least such bad interactions can lower the user's valuation of all your hard work in creating the new feature. But that's not all.

One of the strange things about user experience is that users subjectively put far more weight on negative experiences than positive ones. A new feature should create a positive experience and make users want to use your system even more. But if a new feature interacts poorly with old features then the user's impression can actually be more negative than it was before you extended your system. It would be a damn shame if trying to help your users eventually led them to conclude your whole system was (entirely) too much trouble.


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Joker vD said...

 Well, back in the 70-s the public transport was made free in the Soviet Union—it led to an incredible increase of pickpocketing. And by "incredible", I mean "by tens". So very quickly the nominal fees were returned.

And in today Russia, public transportation is operated half by the municipal, half by private commercial firms—which means prepaid tickets are useless half the time, commercial transport takes cash only the moment you enter/exit it.