Usability of Ticket Vending Machines

Most of us know ticket vending machines that are used for public transport. While people who often buy a similar ticket usually have no trouble using them, it can become quite hard for functions that we rarely use or for people who only rarely use the ticket vending machines. Why is it so hard to program them well?

What we actually want to achieve is searching an item in a multidimensional space. There might be many parameters relevant to the actual ticket and we need to find it through the navigation mechanisms that are offered to us by the software. Sometimes it is straightforward. For local transport some people want to buy a ticket for zone 1B and then they even find this offered on the home screen. Other people have no idea what this zone 1B is and actually do not even care. They should know where they want to go and the system should then know if it is „Kurzstrecke“, „Zone 1A“, „Zone 3D“ or whatever. But the zones might be a useful shortcut for the experienced user, because it can be known that in this case many different travel destinations can be covered by the same ticket, which can be found in a second on the home screen. Making it fast for the experienced user is actually a very good idea, because it saves the time of the customer and of the machine. But the more natural approach of just entering the destination should be provided as well. Up to this point they have actually done it quite well in some vending machines that I have seen.

But then there are some issues that are hard to deal with. I just give some examples that I have experienced without claiming to be complete.

In some cases there is a different ticket universe for local destinations in some area around the location and destinations outside of this. For example the region of „Schleswig-Holstein“ in Germany has a „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“ which applies to certain more local trains. The first step when buying a ticket was selecting between „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“ and something else. Which is something the customer should not need to care. It is bad to require knowing to which destination and even worse to which trains „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“ has to be applied and to which not. In this case „Hamburg“, which is a different region and not part of „Schleswig-Holstein“ as a destination was still part of „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“, which can be found out by trial and error, by asking someone or by using google on the smart phone. Hopefully the train is not leaving in 5 minutes. But again, depending on the train, it is anyway not „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“. Yes, the ideas behind it are not too hard to understand and many people know them like many people know what „Zone 1B“ means. But some don’t and they are having a hard time. The right way would be to ask for the destination and then offer some train connections or some choices for useuful and accessible parameters for train connections to pick the right ticket.

The next issue is that it is usually possible to buy the ticket in advance for the next day, which is a good idea, because it eliminates the stress of having to buy the ticket or having to wait in a line while the train is due to leave. When I tried that, it was not possible with „Schleswig-Holstein-Tarif“, which was again something that took some time to find out. The information that this is not possible should at least be easily available or even better it actually should be possible to buy all tickets at least a few days in advance.

The pricing system should be logical. While it is annoying that flight ticket pricing can only be understand by discarding all logic, this does not work well at all for train tickets, because there are much more stations and thus much more different possible tickets to calculate. A funny example was once constructed with three towns. A, B and C are in a line. A and B are far apart and an important connection. C is very close to B. It was possible to buy a return ticket from B to A. But it was cheaper to buy a ticket from B to C via A, because this was considered as one path and a discount applied because of the longer distance, which did not apply for the path from B to A or from A to B and the return ticket was calculated like a combination of two one-way tickets. This was resolved by disallowing the ticket from B to C via A. A better solution would be to make the tariff system more logical. If it is hard to distinguish between a return ticket and a one-way via-something ticket, it would be better to unify the discount in such a way that the same kind of discount can be given depending on the total distance covered by the whole ticket.

When taking a bicycle on the train, a bicycle ticket needs to be bought. Since this is a more rare case, it is not found on the home screen and it has to be found through some navigation. I do not have an easy answer for this, but it should be done in such a way that it can actually be found by an inexperienced customer without too much difficulty. I had to use google on my smart phone for the last bicycle ticket that I bought, which is not how it should be.

Many railroad companies offer a ticket for frequent travelers which needs to be paid once a year and then provides a discount for most tickets. It is sometimes not clear, when this discount is available and when not. This information should be easily accessible during the ticket buying process.

I think that ticket vending machines are an interesting example of usability and a lot can be learned from them for other applications. And a lot of things have actually been done right, but that is not enough.

See also:

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Do it yourself..

We often observe that something that needed help by an employee is now done by ourselves. Our automobile-affine friends have to fill in gasoline themselves since the seventies in Germany and now even the payment is often done with cards, so that there is no human on site, but only video surveillance, I assume. In Italy it is hard to buy a map, because the shops that usually sell them in gas stations have become very rare and other shops do not sell maps either. This maybe another „do it yourself“, because we use our phone as a map and the printed map has become obsolete or at least less important. Depending on the roaming costs this can be more expensive, but it is there and helps us find where we are on the map and even finding our way…

In some shops we can scan the stuff that we bought ourselves. In some shops in England this is actually the only way that is available. For small purchases I do that myself, because waiting in the line takes longer, but for a larger number of items I would think that the professional is still faster, if the lines are not excessively long. Btw. Aldi, which is a company that runs their shops very efficiently and offers good prices in turn does not seen to use this at all, but they rather trained their employees to be efficient when scanning and to do other work in the shop when there are less people queuing.

Some countries have abolished all the post offices or at least the majority of them, but the service is covered by other shops that are there for something else and cover the postal service by their employees. This helps retaining some presence in thinly populated areas, but it becomes a problem for non trivial requests. They exist in the postal service and it becomes painful when the employees do not have the skills to help. We start using our phone and try to find it out ourselves, which may or may not help.

Airports and airlines encourage to do the check-in via app or internet, which can be a good thing because dealing with this process is annoying, but still faster than waiting in the line. The question remains why so few counters are open.. Baggage drop can also be automated, which works well with standard sized luggage. If we have a kg too much, a human might let us get away with it, but I doubt that a machine is responsive to a smile and a short explanation, if not accompanied by payment. And „oversize“ luggage will always require assistance.

A similar issue arises with railroad tickets. The majority of them can be bought via internet, the app or the vending machine. This has been somewhat improved. In Germany it is possible to find a phone number and reach a human for more difficult tickets. Then we just need to identify with a credit card or with a rail pass on any vending machine to print the tickets, even tickets which we would never have been able to buy ourselves on the vending machine, either because they do not appear in the menus, or because they are too hard to find. Or because the risk of buying a more expensive ticket is too big. In Switzerland a mechanism that was meant primarily for handicapped people who are buying there tickets allows for a VoIP-connection from the vending machine to a call center or to call a number, to get help for the buying process. This is primarily for helping to actually use the machine, which can be useful or at least eliminate some of the panic from situations where we need to get the ticket before our train leaves, if the time is not too short (German Blog about this on the official blog of the SBB). I would like to add that the Swiss ticket vending machines are more user friendly. Now of course we are encouraged to move away from the vending machine and to use the mobile app or print the tickets via the internet. This lets us do work ourselves that was formerly done by an employee, but maybe still saves us time in most of the cases.

When there is still a ticket office with professional railroad employees within reach, this can be ok, but it can become hard if the ticket vending office is run by another shop with their employees like some post office replacements or if there is no human at all within reach. Buying the ticket on the train has become more difficult to impossible as well.

But some of us have maybe heard that in the old days a phone call implied calling some operator and having the operator connect the phone call. This was still available as an option not too many years ago, at least in the time before the mobile phones came up. And it was actually used in the United States, mostly to create calls that were charged to the callee instead of the caller. Usually just dialing the number or even using it from the phones address book is much more convenient than talking to the operator.

So doing things ourselves can be a win-win situation, if the assistence we can get is good enough or if businesses lets us profit from their efficiency gain in some reasonable way. But in any more sophisticated transaction we either loose endless time to figure out how to do them or we absolutely need a human to help us. What is a sophisticated transaction may change with the time. We can learn things and software can become better.

Today quite often even things like login or registration sometimes are difficult. An example across which I came a few times are „master sites“ and afiliated sites, like „SwissPass“ and the Swiss Federal Railroad (SBB) or „Miles and More“ and the site of an airline within the system. This allows for a login via the master site, but also for a direct login bypassing the master site, where we do not necessarily have an account. Getting this right technically and UX-wise is a challenge. But the concepts exist. Yes, it is non-trivial identity management.

And quite often sites just do not work. I tried to register on some sites and gave up. It is necessary to enter 8 pieces of information. If one of them is wrong, the other 7 need to be entered again. Ok, they come from auto completion of the browser, maybe. Phone numbers and dates fields often do not work well. Date fields should always accept ISO-format like „2016-07-16“ besides a date format that is commonly used in the locale of the user, like „16.07.2016“ in Germany and Switzerland (though the official format is ISO). This is ugly, but can be handled, if the desired format is mentioned in the form. Often a calendar widget is useful, because it helps us know the weekday, but in case of the birth date we rarely need it for that reason. The phone number is very often a problem. There are so many variants to this, but actually starting with a „+“ and separating groups of digits with spaces should at least work. That is another issue. Quite a few forms fail because of leading or trailing spaces, which we hardly see and which we sometime get into the form when using copy+paste.

I remember the nightmare of installing Oracle 10-15 years ago. There was a „comfortable“ installer, written in Java (Java 1.1). Everything worked fine and then the installer failed with some red alarm, without any obvious way out, other than do it once again. Of course professional Oracle admins never used this installer and got it right within a day. But leaving the user in a „nightmare“ situation without any visible way out of this is a clear UX anti pattern. Even if I am no way a UX specialist but just an ordinary user I can tell.

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Tablet Computers

The idea of tablet computers is actually quite old and it has been tried a couple of times, at least up to prototypes. Probably a certain level of hardware and software was needed to make them both useful and affordable for enough people to become a mass product. This is actually a quite common thing. Some person, group or company has invented something really good, but they were not able to provide a sufficiently reliable, useful and affordable product to the market or just were not able to leave their home market efficiently. There are just a few examples for this, that I have observed.

  • Tilting trains have been tried in Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, Sweden Switzerland, Canada, France and Japan, in some countries several times. Many efforts become dead ends because the technology was not easily built in an affordable and reliable and maintainable way, so the mechanism was disabled or the trains were put out of service way too early. Italy actually made this technology work, but some of the train sets suffered serious deficiencies in quality, reliability and maintenance. Spain did the Talgo, which is less ambitious, because it uses gravity instead of an active mechanism and provides for a weaker effect. Sweden developed the X2000 trains, which seemed to work more or less well, but were quite expensive. But finally it seems that companies are able to produce good trains with this technology, like the relatively new Swiss ICN-trains.
  • A British company had produced trailer bikes for children already in the 1930s. They have one wheel and are attached to a parent’s bike. These were hard to get and they were almost unknown, even though the idea is great. In the 1990s German companies started to adopt the concept and actually produce them in good quality and sell them internationally, which was off course easier than 60 years earlier. They are now a common concept.
  • In the 1970s many bicycles had three speed hub gears. Derailleur gears already existed, but they were hard to use and fragile. For steeper roads it was possible to use a larger sprocket and to be able to climb slopes at the expense of lacking higher gears for flat sections. A British company produced a 5 speed hub gear, but it was extremely difficult to get and the quality was so poor that it would be almost half of the time in repair for a more active cyclist. Today we see mature hub gears with more than ten gears, but the derailleur technology has also become mature enough for the main stream.

So there are several requirements to success.

Another interesting aspect is that the actual usage might become different than anticipated. I understand that the tablet computers where sold as a „better replacement“ for PCs and Laptops in certain areas. I do not think that this is reasonable. Having a keyboard and a larger screen is usually better and it makes sense to transport a small or even a larger laptop. I have often had an external keyboard on top of the laptop, when I could afford to transport it and anticipated a heavy use. The netbook was so small that it did not hurt to have it in the luggage, but it was eventually hard to expand the memory and to get a replacement. A relatively small laptop still serves the purpose when a real computer is needed, but luggage is constrained.

The tablet computer does have some features that make it worth having one on top of a good phone and different sizes of Laptops. I am using an Android tablet, which is the most common OS for tablets, but there are off course some others, which I do not know well enough to write about them.

It is easier to switch between keyboard types. I am using the Cyrillic keyboard a lot and the computer with which I am writing this text has two external keyboards attached. I can switch with a key sequence, but this approach has its limitations. Probably buying a Laptop in Russia and just knowing the German keyboard without relying on the symbols on the keys would work for me. But the tablet makes this work with very little setup, while buying a physical Cyrillic keyboard in Switzerland is a bit harder, but still easy and buying a Laptop with Cyrillic keyboard layout does need some effort.

When doing small stuff, mostly reading or even some smaller emails, this is much better than the phone, but it can be used in the train, in the park, anywhere, where it is possible to sit. A laptop requires some kind of a table to be reasonably useful. There are seats with tables in the train, but that is a matter of luck to get one.

Finally we currently have a lot of Android Apps. They could be written for „normal“ desktop Linux as well or as web applications. Maybe that will happen. But currently some of them are available for Android, but not or not in a useful way for desktop Linux. This may change and it heavily depends on what we are actually using. But in my case it is true and it proved to be helpful to have the larger screen than on the Android phone.

Concerning the SIM card, I actually went the extra mile in terms of higher price and more effort for buying it in order to get a SIM card slot. I have not used it very much, because the extra SIM card is kind of expensive, moving SIM cards between devices is inconveniant and using the Android phone as a WiFi-Router seems to work well enough. But maybe this is useful when travelling a lot with SIM-cards from many countries to use just all the slots in older and newer phones and tablets and to use the device with the currently preferred SIM card as the WiFi router for all the others.

And finally it can be said that we can now buy fairly affordable good tablet computers. What I am missing is that tools from desktop Linux are usually not available on Android or only in a limited version. But the most common applications, a web browser and an email client are off course working on both…

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User Friendliness

I have made an interesting observation in terms of user friendliness. Let’s call it an anti-pattern…

I had booked a flight in the internet. Now the ticket was a number, which they sent to me by SMS. I went to the page of the airline and tried to do the check-in, in order to get a better seat, a lesser chance of being an overbooking-victim and to save some time and nerves at the airport.

Now it is necessary to enter some information each time, like Passport number, date of birth, my name, validity of passport and citizenship. By mistake I used the wrong citizenship without noticing and then the page asked me, if I have a Visa.

Now it was impossible to go back to fix this, so I had to cancel the whole process and enter all the information once again. At least I thought so. It was worse, because the wrong citizenship had put the whole booking into a weird status which could not be fixed anymore on the web application. It just refused to deal anymore with this ticket.

It was possible to use the app of the airline and to redo the whole thing on my tablet.

If there is information that is so important to get right, there are some suggestions:

  • Allow the user to go back to any form in the dialog and revisit the entries
  • Show the data that has been entered to make it easy to recognize the error
  • Give the user who messed up a second chance to fix it
  • The question is, why I have to enter my birthday, passport number, name etc. each time. They do not change frequently. Privacy is really a good thing, but I guess in the case of traveling by air all privacy issues are just a joke. Why not give at least some convenience?
  • Anybody who happens to get the relatively short ticket number can mess around with it, which could be very annoying, if he for example canceled the flight.
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Usability „Pearl“

I just found this usability pearl:

After entering a credit card number as usual with spaces between the groups of four digits, the web page complained like this:

Credit Card Number without Spaces

Web page of insisting to refill a form because of spaces

Yes, it is easy to allow spaces. Just match the following regex
/^\s*\d{4}\s*\d{4}\s*\d{4}\s*\d{4}\s*$/
and then remove the spaces when processing it, but do not let the user enter the number without spaces. That is just ridiculous.

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