Boston parking meter cards: user error, or a system-design problem?

The City of Boston recently announced the Boston Meter Card, a prepaid card to use at parking meters. It’s a great idea, but it was impossible for me to figure out because the card doesn’t work the way other cards work. You have to insert the card and keep it in the meter for 10 to 15 seconds.

This post describes the problem, proposes simple ways to fix the problem at this late date and has videos of how the meters work.

Parking meter with Boston Meter Card inserted

How do you think it works?

How do you think it works?

What would you do when you walked up to a meter with the card? I thought about which way to put the card in, inserted it, took it out, and… nothing.

I was there with someone else, and we couldn’t figure it out. Was the card broken? Was the meter  broken? What else could I have done?

Good thing I had quarters.

It doesn’t work the way you’d expect

When you insert the card, you have to hold it in for  10 to 15 seconds and wait while the small display updates a number of times. But you knew that, right?

Problem #1: It doesn’t work like any other card I use. I couldn’t figure it out. Was it user error, or a system-design problem?

Videos of using the Boston Meter Card

Watch video footage of checking in and out of a meter. It’s hard to read the display, but that’s part of the real-life situation.

Now that I know how it works, I understand the transitions in the display:

  1. 00:00 – there was no time on the meter when I arrived
  2. 25.00 – I have $25.00 left on the card
  3. In – I’m checking in
  4. 4:00 – the maximum amount of time to park

The first time I tried the card, it took the full 15 seconds to get a response. It didn’t display “In” that time, but it did display “1111” for some reason.

How long do you have to wait and watch? And how many changes will there be? Not knowing makes it hard to know when it’s complete. Is it clear what each display means?? There was no explanation, and it was impossible to figure out the first time. A brochure came with the card, but didn’t mention any of this.

Problem #2: The displayed information isn’t always the same for the same operation.

Checking out of the space was even more confusing because there were more transitions in the display to figure out:

These were the transitions for checking out:

  1. 2:18 – the time left when I got back
  2. 1111 – no idea, what do you think?
  3. 1:42 – the time I had parked and would pay for now
  4. 22.85 – the money I would have left on the card
  5. OUt – I was leaving
  6. 00:00 – the meter was reset and now had no time

Problem #3: There’s no way for a first-time user to know how many display transitions there will be, so there’s no way to know how long to wait before removing the card. (I think you have to wait, but I didn’t test that.) And it’s not clear what it all means.

It works like … nothing else

Even if you use an older ATM that holds on to your card, it reacts within a second or two. Most card-reading machines have instructions saying to “swipe” or “dip” the card; this was the only one that would use a word like “wait”. Here’s an example from a hotel I recently stayed at:

A card key for a hotel door

This hotel key card responded within a second. All I had to do was "dip" it in and remove it.

Using the card the first time

The first thing was to figure out how to insert it. This photo shows a graphic on the meter that corresponds to the chip on the back of the card. It’s hard to see and it’s not clear what it means.

Parking meter showing card slot and graphic of the chip as an indicator of how to insert the card

The arrow points to a graphic that looks like the chip on the back of the card. Is that enough to tell you how to insert the card?

The sticker just below the slot would have been a good place to put some instructions. That would have been easier than trying to decipher that little mark under the slot.

Problem #4: The display is hard to read in bright light, and probably worse at night.

I inserted the card different ways, but it didn’t react (because I didn’t know to hold it in place). I spent a lot of time trying to make it work and a lot of time the next day on the phone finding out how it does work.

The problem: User error?

One person I talked with in the Parking Office said that it was “probably user error” because “that is the problem in 24 out of 25 cases.” I don’t generally believe in user error, so I took a deep breath and said that it’s more likely a system-design problem.

After awhile, I found someone who explained about having to hold the card in the meter for 10 to 15 seconds. I identified myself as a user experience designer, and we talked further.

More than user error, I think it was a failure to understand the users and their expectations.

Should a parking meter card need instructions?

He asked if I’d read the brochure that comes with the cards (PDF). This should be so simple that instructions aren’t needed. I don’t think people would read directions, save them or remember what they’d read. I mentioned that, and said that as a typical user, my copy was already in the recycle pile.

We talked about the instructions on the back of the card, too (ALL IN UPPER CASE) That text doesn’t say anything about holding the card in, it didn’t explain the transitions on the display and it didn’t explain when you’re done with a transaction. The brochure did mention holding the card in, but only for signing out.

The back of a meter card

The gold seal on the left must be the chip. The instructions at right ARE ALL UPPER CASE and don't mention holding the card in.

Problem #5: This system shouldn’t require documentation and what they provide is incomplete.

How can they fix this now that they’re already selling cards?

If the city doesn’t change something to make the system easier to figure out, I’m afraid that it will just fail.

It’s a system with many parts: the card, the display, the insertion method, the information on the meter and the brochure. Plus user expectations. Some parts are easier to change than others, but something has to change.

When I talked with someone in City Hall, I suggested reprinting the cards with complete instructions. He said that the cards came from the vendor. And that they had 10,000 of them. My card has a number in the 400s, so that won’t work.

Next, I suggested printing stickers with better instructions to cover the old text. Again, even if it were a lot of work, at least people would have the instructions with them.

It would help if the sticker on the meter had some instructions. I assume that changing the displays or how the meters work would be too involved, but we didn’t get to those topics.

We talked a little more and I wished him well.

Lesson: Design, test, redesign, test, …

Problem #6: The underlying problem is that the product design process probably didn’t involve any actual users or testing in real situations.

This is a system designed for anyone who parks a car at a meter, day or night, possibly in a hurry. How do you think someone like that reacts to this user experience the first time?

I don’t know who the vendor is, or who designed the system. And I don’t know how they’re going to resolve this problem. I’m pretty sure the program will not succeed without a big change.

I sent what I learned to Eric Moskowitz, the Boston Globe reporter who writes the Starts & Stops column about transportation issues. Maybe he can write a column and help teach people how it works.

It seems pretty clear to me that this whole system was designed the old-fashioned way. Rather than test the system with real users in real situations, they probably talked about it in a conference room and figured it would work out OK. If someone raised the obvious problems, I can imagine someone else saying, “Yeah, but all they have to do is…”

That phrase is the kiss of death for a design. I hope the City of Boston can make this project work because it’s a great idea.

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12 Responses to Boston parking meter cards: user error, or a system-design problem?

  1. Trey Klein says:

    Nice analysis Hal! I completely agree with all your points! Want to come work for my company? :-)

    Trey

    • Hal Shubin says:

      Thanks, Trey. I’m glad you saw this — I remember the discussion we had in Facebook. And, hey, I’m a consultant, I’d love to work for your company. Or anyone else’s.

  2. Molly Trainer says:

    I’m very glad I read your post before investing in a meter card. I will still get one (and ditch the quarters), but at least now I’ll have a fighting chance at success.

  3. Gina Richard says:

    This was some very helpful info as I’m thinking about getting a meter card. But, if I were to park at a meter at 5pm that I didn’t have to pay anything to park at after 6pm, how would the proper amount of money get debited from my meter card for that one hour? I would be at work and unable to go back out to my car at 6pm to re-insert my card. This is a situation I’m often in. Do you or does anyone know how the cards work in situations like this? Or do they not? Thanks!

    • Hal Shubin says:

      I’m pretty sure that Globe writer Eric Moskowitz (“Starts & Stops” column) wrote something about this question a couple of months ago. I can’t find that article right now, though. If you search, let me know if you find it. But that’s another unanswered question about the cards.

      • Paul Wilson says:

        It’s in Eric’s Jan 22, 2012 column. Essentially the problem is that the meter has no way of knowing its hours of operation. So if you don’t swipe out, you get dinged for the maximum allowed time regardless of whether that’s valid or not. The upshot is if you’re within the maximum time limit and you don’t plan to return to swipe out you’re better off using coins. (Example: you arrive at 6:30 pm to a meter which operates from 8am – 8pm with a two hour limit. You’ll get charged for two hours instead of 1.5 unless you come back at 8pm to swipe out.)

  4. Ward says:

    Self-service gas pumps and self-swipe card readers at the supermarket have trained nearly everyone how the parking meters should work.

    I can’t imagine any fix will be successful short of replacing all of the parking meters with new units that have been properly designed and tested for usability before deployment.

    The “fix it in the documentation” approach only works for users who are paid to learn to deal with unusable systems.

    • Hal Shubin says:

      I was excited to apply my new-found Meter Card knowledge last time I drove into Boston. But not all meters use the Card. The one I parked at accepted cash and credit cards. Much easier to use — no manua required.

  5. Tony says:

    I let my wife use my card with $5 on it. She forgot to checkout. Today I had .25 cents left. I used it and then went to add quarters. It took the quarters but did not give me any time. I had to wait for the card to run out and then start with quarters. Yes the whole thing is nice but very confusing.

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