Metrocard Vending Machine UI critique
January 7, 2003 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Metrocard Vending Machine UI critique. If you've been to New York City in the last few years, then you might be familiar with the MTA's big silver vending machines in the subways. For those living here it's almost second nature by now. The Windows NT based touch screen UI is really not too bad. Most tourists may opt for a One-day Fun Pass ($4), while the locals already know what to pick. MTA also places posters all over indicating changes to the vending machines, and initially even had posters explaining the various options.
posted by riffola (32 comments total)
Good, reasoned critique. I'd agree with the mystifying Start button and language-selection points most of all. I'd also add that the machine lacks a quantity selection -- when my parents are in town, they want to buy two one-day passes. My dad likes to use his credit card. But you can only buy one card at a time, and you have to go through the entire process all over again, including credit card authorization.

I also wish that the display would count down as one inserts money-- say $1.50 is needed...if you insert a quarter, the screen saying "Insert $1.50" or some such would change to "Insert $1.25."

The London Underground gets the "quantity" part right, but all in all I'd say the MTA system is also pretty good and relatively easy to understand. (I share the original writer's disdain for the DC Metrocard machines.)
posted by Vidiot at 7:59 AM on January 7, 2003

The ones in London are a blessing from above and very, very easy to use. Before that you had to have the right change or queue up at the ticket office. There should be more of them - there's only usually one or two per station. If I could I would pay with my card for absolutely everything.
posted by Summer at 8:08 AM on January 7, 2003

Hear, hear - the Tube ticket machines are the finest examples of usability in London: a ticket to any station using a credit card in (literally) seconds.

My only moan is that you can only use your card once per day - to minimise fraud I assume.
posted by niceness at 8:18 AM on January 7, 2003

I find the London ones difficult to use when I'm going outside the zones covered on my Travelcard. I get a zone extension ticket, yes. But I never know which card (zone extension ticket or Travelcard) to put in the turnstile at each end of the journey, and neither seems to work. I usually end up trying to get the attention of the person hanging around the gate and showing it to them so they can let me in/out.

I happen to know that "return" in British = "round-trip" in American, but I once saw some fellow Americans get upset in Camden because they wanted to return to (as in "go back to") Zone 1 and quite naturally hit the "Return to Zone 1" button...and were then charged for an extra ticket that they didn't need. (What they wanted was a zone extension to Zone 1, I assume.)
posted by Vidiot at 9:01 AM on January 7, 2003

This guy's crying about, what, five seconds lost by the system's relative inefficiency? This isn't track, buddy. I had honestly never thought to critique the vending machines - they're an enormous step up from the wait-in-line, buy-a-token system of old.
posted by risenc at 9:12 AM on January 7, 2003

My gf and I have had this dispute several times. I've always said the things are counterintuitive, and I have two main complaints:
1. I always (every single time) purchase a $20 metrocard. Why should I have to page through some inane menu just to get there?
2. When I want to refill an old card, my first instinct is to insert it first. Why page through a menu first? If I'm inserting an existing card, then obviously I'm refilling it.
posted by charlesv at 9:19 AM on January 7, 2003

how come it's the programmer's fault? even in my tiny company we have a designer. maybe - shock - some designers are crap (or maybe the specification wasn't clear, with the client changing what should be sold, or a committee specified the ui in every horrible detail...).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:21 AM on January 7, 2003

My main complaint with the article is its failure to fully compare/
contrast the MertoCard dispensers (MVMs) with the MTA's sister project,
the Metro-North automated ticket vendors (TVMs); as awkward
as the interface of the MVMs may be, the TVM layouts greeting commuters outside NYC are unnecessarily clumsy. Both varieties of VMs contain separate layouts for options, adding additional steps to the overall learning curve, and the MVM's "strength" - displaying the amount required
for fare prior to receiving money - is an abiguity for the TVM's hierarchal tree.

The most obvious design constraint of the TVMs, of course, are their inability to dispense MetroCards...though the MTA's crackdown on loitering has made that issue a moot point.
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:23 AM on January 7, 2003

Vidiot - What problems do you have with the DC Metro machines? I've been using them for over a decade with no problem. I found the NY Subway way more confusing, but it was more due to the train lines themselves than the machines. (The machines weren't exactly perfect, though. I prefer DC's.)
posted by emptybowl at 9:25 AM on January 7, 2003

There are some missed opportunities with the Metrocard. First of all, they're butt ugly. Why could they not harness the creative power of New York with their designs? Oh sure, once in a while there's a special edition with a baseball team on it, but where's my "Favorite Skyscrapers of New YOrk" series?

Secondly, they appear to be totally unrecyclable. Lots of New Yorkers do fill up their old cards, but given the heaps of discarded cards, we could do better. (Not that we have recycling anymore in NYC...)

Third. Given the dearth of clocks in the subway stations they could make it so that the machines, when not in use, would display the time and temperature. And possibly service announcements.

Fourth, next time they revamp the Metrocard system, they should make it so that you don't even need a card - just an EZ Pass type of gizmo that you clip to your coat.

Ah, the future. Guess the fare will have to go up to $5.00 a ride before we see any redressing of all the problems discussed today.
posted by DenOfSizer at 9:35 AM on January 7, 2003

Given the dearth of clocks in the subway stations

I always wondered whether the lack of clocks was budgetary, or psychological, as in a clock glaring you in the face would emphasize the poorness of service
posted by ParisParamus at 9:38 AM on January 7, 2003

If you've seen the demo on antenna, you know that like most client jobs, the product changed once it left the designers' hands... but all in all I think it's actually pretty good.

The link's a bit too nitpicky. For example, the criticism seems to disapprove of the oversized buttons, which (with the high contrast) is clearly there to not only get attention but to make selection easier for people who may have motor-impairment. His solution presents too many buttons too soon, and would not work for that user scenario.

It could be better, certainly -- for example, there's no reason the start button couldn't have been the language selection and have "Start" in the four different languages. But since it's basically a city job, it's quite an accomplishment it ended up working as well as it does (even if it's powered by Windows NT... yeah, I've seen them crash).

My biggest problem lately is that you can't buy multiple cards at once. I'm always buying a card at the same time my wife is, and we have to take up two machines to do it or take twice as long as usual on one. The motor memory of finding all the selections, OTOH, have already been burned into my brain. :)
posted by teradome at 9:38 AM on January 7, 2003

I misspoke, emptybowl. What I hate about the DC subway (and truth be told, there' s not much to hate) is the way the fare changes based on peak/off-peak distinctions. Makes it hard to gauge how many rides are left when you're in a hurry and don't want to stop to refill your card.

And one time one of the Addfare machines ate a $20, and I couldn't find a clerk or ANYONE official to a.) let them know about it, or b.) give me a refund. So perhaps I harbor a deep-seated grudge.
posted by Vidiot at 9:39 AM on January 7, 2003

the time and temperature.

And concentration of airborne urine?
posted by ParisParamus at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2003

First of all, they're butt ugly.

That's one thing that Atlanta's MARTA actually does quite well, surprisingly enough. The MARTA monthly passes have different designs each month...and most of them are actually interesting.
posted by Vidiot at 9:44 AM on January 7, 2003

From the link:First, in order to get started at all, you have to touch a "start" button on the screen. Instead of just being ready to serve, the giant machine has decided to go to sleep, so it must be woken up before it'll start taking your orders. That is simply gratuitous.

And treadonme said: for example, there's no reason the start button couldn't have been the language selection and have "Start" in the four different languages.

I think the start screen is actually really important because it helps the user to understand right away that they're dealing with a touch screen interface. There's a lot of other controls crowded around the screen, and I'm sure that many less savvy customers would have tried to use the atm pad, insert their existing metro card, or put coins into the green panel to operate the machine.
posted by astirling at 10:12 AM on January 7, 2003

Those things are nothing compared to the new UI nightmares that are the new auto-pay systems in WalMart and my local grocery stores.

You start by pushing the screen to let it know you want to buy stuff. No problem yet...

Now here's where the nightmare begins. It uses voice prompts for EVERYTHING. I mean EVERYTHING. Every single item scanned causes the system to say "Place the item in the bag". The cacophony of these machines has to be mind blowing for the cashiers.

Worse yet, the bag carousel (attached to the machine, of course) weighs everything when you put it in. It won't let you scan the next item until you've placed the last one in the bag, and it's sensed the weight. When buying small items (like soup cans) this is an RSI nightmare. But wait! What happens if the item is too light for the machine to sense it (baseball cards) or too big/heavy to place in a bag (18 L jug of water)?

You guessed it. You're SCREWED. You have to wait for one of those cashier people to reset your machine. Oh goody. But wait, that's nothing. What about supermarket items without a UPC, like fruits or bulk items? Well... it gets worse. There's three menu options for these. You can select by picture or by code number, and weigh the item on the scanner, or ask a cashier for help. Here's where UI gets t be the worst: Items with a code (including those were not all the items get labelled, like apples and oranges) are not available in the picture selection menu. To make it worse, though, is the fact that the picture menu isn't sorted! ACK!

So again, you have to ask the cashier for help with any unlabelled item. But the hell hasn't ended there... oh no...

Once you've selected to pay, and you've paid enough that there should be a bill in change (let's say you paid with a $20 for something that cost $10) it shoots the bill out at your knees!. How are you supposed to find it there? The computer sure doesn't have a picture of where the money is ejected on it...

Did I mention that all your coins and bills have to be inserted individually? Yikes!

Yay, another chat with the cashier.

So you finally get all your bags in the cart, and, lo-and-behold, the computer doesn't think you've removed everything from the carousel (I guess it didn't detect a 0 weight condition, I don't know) and it continues to whine in its horrible, monotonous voice, and you exit, leaving the next customer to deal with a machine with the cashier gets to reset... AGAIN!

I'd rather deal with a broken vending machine than another one of these wacky self-pay stations again...

( Of course, it was made by Microsoft. Or at least their logo was the only one stickered on it. )

Please select a payment method... Please put the item in the bag... Please enter your code... Please wait for a cashier... Please remove the items... Please shut up! NOW!
posted by shepd at 10:20 AM on January 7, 2003

The machines for buying monthly BART tickets in San Francisco have similar problems. They're basically an ATM combined with a ticket-selection machine, so there are two screens and two keyboards. Even though I buy the same ticket twice a month, it's confusing every time. And the ATM's buttons don't beep or give any other feedback when you click on them, so it's easy to think you missed a number and type it again.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:28 AM on January 7, 2003

shepd - I used one of those for the first time the other day. And I agree completely. (Granted, if I did it often enough I would become more adept.) I chose it because the regular lines were so long, and I had a hangover and didn't want to deal with people. Well, not only did the cashier have to enter some of my more bizarre fruit and vegetable items (well, not that bizarre, but a variety of peppers), but I had a lot of small items. Which made it all - with the weighing, and itemizing, and etc - take egregiously long. All the people I would have stood directly behind in the regular lines were well out the door by the time I was done.
posted by risenc at 10:33 AM on January 7, 2003

Kirkaracha: I used the same machines for a while; the only feedback the ATM section gives you is the # symbols in its little display. It's not a lot, but it's something... Apart from that, though, I agree completely. It's like the transit version of the Thing With Two Heads. Why not just have one screen and one keypad?
posted by wanderingmind at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2003

shepd & risenc, I might be the only person in the world to think this, but I love those things. They're awesome. I used one when I was in college, about two years ago, at a Meijer in Mishawaka. I think they're awesome. Granted, the whole weight thing, sucks. But there is an option on the machine (at least the one I used) that you can use to turn off the audible warnings. The cashier in control of the lines also has the option to override the weight control on any machine in the grouping. I used one when they were first put in the store, and my experience was much like yours, and I didn't go back to that line for months.

However, I was in a hurry one day, and all the lines were full of moms with their weekly grocery shopping, and all I needed was a pair of nylons and eggs, so I just went to the autothing. I never went back to the regular lines again. They'd turned off the annoying "please put your item in the bag" announcements, and they'd disabled the weight thing (with nylons, of course, I would notice if it was enabled, and it wasn't).

I talked to the cashier and she told me that it just became too much of a problem, so they had the manufacturer come in and install this "new" software that allows them to disable those options. She said it required more vigilence on her side, watching to make sure that people weren't walking off with things they didn't scan, but it proved to be a better experience for the consumer. They had installed four more of those machines, and posted a single Sam's Club - like cart checker at the exits of the autopay area. It worked like a dream - and I went back with my weekly shopping, and it still worked well. I LOVE IT! :)

I wish they had them around my home, but, sadly, they don't. Maybe I shouldn't wish for that, either, since it seems like you two had the same experiences...perhaps my experience was a fluke!
posted by MeetMegan at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2003

The link's a bit too nitpicky.

I feel the same way. The whole time I was reading the article, I could think was, this guy sure whines a lot.
No system is perfect, and if his were implemented, no doubt, there would be endless criticism of his system by yet more whiny bastards.
It is what it is, the solution they came up with. We all know that the best system is not always the one implemented, but in the end, we are forced to live with it. So, I say, get over it. Hopefully the next incarnation will be better.
posted by a3matrix at 11:02 AM on January 7, 2003

ditto on the auto-pay

at least now people are understanding the fact that the machine is weighing their stuff. The first time I did it, I tryed to scan the next item before putting the last one down in the bag. As stated above I had to wait for the cashier to come over and reset the machine, I tried to feel sorry for her thankless job but she spoke to me as one would speak to a 7 year old: "Do *not* scan an item until the last item is in the bag"

But maybe they put her in charge of the six auto-pays because of her poor social skills.
posted by jeremias at 11:06 AM on January 7, 2003

The machines for buying monthly BART tickets in San Francisco have similar problems

ah, but since they're so confusing for most people to use, they're also the *fastest* way to get a ticket. see -- when everyone else is crowded around the cash-only machines, you can run over to those ones and buy a cash ticket, as long as you put in at least two dollars. of course, it takes an extra couple of button pushes, but no longer than it'll take that guy with the crumpled dollar bills at the cash-only machine to put in exact change or whatever.

also, i enjoyed this article -- great ideas. i'd love for people, for example, to revisit ATM design -- everything on an ATM should work like the "Quick Cash" feature. or I should be able to customize prompts.
posted by fishfucker at 11:12 AM on January 7, 2003

Oh sure, once in a while there's a special edition with a baseball team on it, but where's my "Favorite Skyscrapers of New YOrk" series?

I think you can still buy the MOMA (Metro Museum of Art) MetroCards from Gr. Central (you have to ask at the ticket seller) or at the Train Museum.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:21 AM on January 7, 2003

The only thing I hated about the grocery store auto-pay lines was that one of the Atlanta grocery stores (I think it was Harris Teeter) positioned it the wrong way. Instead of saying how quick and easy it was, they were saying how fun it was. Easy? Yes. Fun? Not exactly. I don't hate it, but going to the grocery store isn't quite a recreational activity in my book.
posted by Vidiot at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2003

Thanks, Thanotopsis, but I don't think you can USE them as Metrocards anymore...

They'll work the bugs out of the do-the-work-yourself-and-while-we're-at-it-let's-replace-all-the-minimum-wage-workers machines, oh I have faith in that. Gosh, and to think I used to think it was kind of nice to have a conversation with someone. How quaint.
posted by DenOfSizer at 12:48 PM on January 7, 2003

I was overjoyed when my favourite grocery store introduced auto-pay lines because I'm incredibly picky when it comes to how my groceries get bagged and if I was auto-paying, I was also bagging them myself. Then I actually used the stupid &$(^ing contraptions and my joy died a near instant death.

There's no 'multiples of' option, so when I bought 12 containers of peach yogurt, I had to scan each of them individually. And put each one in the bag before I scanned the next one. There's only 6 scales available, holding one bag each. More than 6 bags worth of groceries? Too bloody bad. There's no alphabetic listing of vegetables so while you're holding carrots in your hand, you have to decide if they're 'popular vegetables', 'salad vegetables', 'misc vegetables' or something else entirely.

I've gone back to letting the cashier drop 5 pounds of potatoes on top of the tomatoes, and ignore the very careful way in which I place the items on the conveyer, with all the frozen foods together and all the refrigerator foods together and all the heavy foods together and instead pick and choose such that a magazine, a carton of milk and a can of peas goes in one bag, while frozen burritos, hairspray and eggs go in another.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2003

The MetroCard machines work fine for me (and it's great to be able to skip the lines at the token booth), but then I always pay in cash, which enables me to avoid the worst nuisances.

What truly amazes me, though (since we've gotten on to other such devices), is the new self-service system at the NYPL branch libraries. It's mind-bogglingly simple and efficient: you put your card in a slot (it sits there, doesn't vanish anywhere, so you don't worry about its getting eaten), run the bar codes of the books you want under a scanner, take your card out of the slot, and it spits out slips with the due date for each book. Takes five seconds and you're out the door. I don't understand why people wait in line to have library employees do the same thing for them.
posted by languagehat at 1:53 PM on January 7, 2003

That was a really whiny article. The metrocard machines are great. I've never had trouble with them, they're easy to use, & offer a lot of options. As for some of his questions: he probably tried to refill an unlimited pass which is why it didn't work. An ExBus is some kind of express bus that you have to pay extra for. A singleride card is made of paper instead of plastic and good for one ride.
posted by mdn at 2:04 PM on January 7, 2003

What I don't understand is why this reasonable but trivial complaint was formulated as a rant and not as a suggestion to the MTA -- it would be nicer this way, sure, but it's hardly worth getting worked up over.
posted by Epenthesis at 3:56 PM on January 7, 2003

when i've used the metrocard machines i thought they were just fine. some of his issues seemed to nits rather than real usability issues. it would be cool if somehow the transit systems [not just nyc] could use a few bytes on the card to 'remember' your settings by looking up the card number on the backend [kind of like a cookie on web pages].

i use autopay at the grocery when i'm just getting a few items that have barcodes and won't gin up the system. i pay with the debit card and i'm out of the store in a flash. it is also great for days when you just don't want to talk to anyone. if i have a lot of crap to buy i go through the line and have the dorky kid take my bags out to the car.
posted by birdherder at 5:24 PM on January 7, 2003

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