Has anyone ever uttered the following phrases: ‘it must be me!’ or ‘I must be stupid, I can’t work this system!’ When you say those words the odds are that it is likely that the problems have little to do with you and have everything to do with the system that you’re trying to use.
Making usable systems and devices is all about understanding different perspectives and thinking about compromises. Firstly, there’s the user (and understanding what he or she wants to do using a system). Secondly, there’s the task that has to be completed (and how a task might be connected to other tasks and systems). Finally, there’s the question of the environment, i.e. the situations in which a product is going to be used. If you fully understand all these aspects in a lot of depth and balance one aspect against another, then you’ll be able to design a system that is usable (of course, this is a huge simplification of the process of interaction design, but I’m sure that you get my point).
Parking a motorbike
A couple of months ago took a course at my second favourite academic institution, CityLit. Since it was pretty good weather (despite being January), I decided to ride my scooter into the middle on London and park in one of the parking bays that were not too far from the college. The only problem was that the City of Westminster has introduced a charging scheme, and this was a system that I hadn’t used before.
This blog post is a polite rant (and reflection) of the banal challenge of trying to pay Westminster council a grand total of one pound and twenty pence. It turns out that the whole exercise is an interesting example of interaction design since it helps us to think about issues surrounding who the user is, the environment in which a system is used and the task that has to be completed. Paying for parking sounds like a pretty simple task, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain…
Having heard about the motorcycle parking rules in Westminster, I decided to do some research. I expecting a simple system where you texted your bike registration number and location code to a designated ‘parking’ telephone number, and through the magic of mobile telephony, one English pound was added to your monthly mobile phone bill and the same English pound was appropriated to Westminster Council. Well, it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. Payments don’t come from your phone account but instead come from your credit card. This means that you needed to connect your phone number to your credit card number.
When you’ve found the motorbike registration site (which isn’t through a recognisable ‘Westminster Council’ URL), you get to create something called a ‘parking account’. When logged in, you’re asked to enter the registration number of your vehicle. In my case, since I’m pretty weird, I have two motorbikes: one that makes the inside of the garage look pretty, and another one (a scooter) that I sometimes use to zip around town on. There are enough spaces to enter the registration codes for four different bikes.
The thing is, I can’t remember the registration numbers for any of my bikes! It turns out that I can hardly remember anything! I can’t remember my phone number, I can’t remember my credit card number and I can’t remember two registration numbers. I must be an idiot! (Thankfully, I remembered my email address, which is something else you need – just make sure you know the password to access your account).
There was another oddity of the whole system. After you’ve got an account, you login using a PIN code, which is the last four numbers of your credit card. I never use these four numbers! Again, I don’t know what they are! (Unless I had to look). I was starting to get a bit impatient.
Arriving at the parking bay
The ride to the middle of town was great. It was too early in the day for most people, which meant that the streets were quiet. After parking my bike, I started to figure out how to pay. I looked at an information sign, which I immediately saw was covered in city grime. I also immediately saw that it didn’t have all the information I needed.
I visited the parking website and discovered that you needed FOUR different numbers! You needed a phone number, a location number (where your bike is parked), a day code (to indicate how long you’re parking your bike for), and the final four numbers of your registered credit card. Thankfully, I had the foresight to save the parking telephone number in my phone, so I only had to send three numbers (but I would have rather liked to avoid messing around with my wallet to fish out my credit card; it meant unzipping and then zipping up layers of protective clothing).
At last, I had done it. I had sent a payment text. To celebrate my success, I visited a nearby café for a coffee and a sit down. About ten minutes later, I received a text message that confirmed that I had paid for parking ‘FOR THE WRONG BIKE!’
The text message confirmed that I had just paid for parking for my ridiculous bike rather than the sensible city scooter that I had just used. Also, when I registered both bikes on the system, I entered the scooter registration first, since it would be the bike that I would be using most. At this point, I had no idea whether the system was clever enough to stupidly assume that I had written either (or both) of my bikes to Westminster at the same time. There was no clear way to choose one bike as opposed to the other. Again, I felt like an idiot.
Then, I had a crazy thought – perhaps I ought to try to look at my ‘parking record’, since this way there might be a way to change the vehicle I was using. I logged in to the magic system (through my smartphone), entering in my last four digits of my credit card, again, and found a screen that seemed to do what I wanted. It encouraged me to enter start and end dates (what?), and then had a button entitled, ‘generate report’. A report on what? The number of toys found in Kinder Eggs that are considered to be dangerous? I pushed the button. Nothing happened. I had no parking history despite having just sent a parking text. Effective feedback is one of the most obvious and fundamental principles of good usability.
It took be around five minutes to walk to the college. When I got there I discovered two other motorcycle parking bays that were just around the corner. I then made a discovery: it seemed that different bays seemed to have the same location ID. It then struck me: perhaps the second number I had been entering in the phone was totally redundant! Perhaps it’s the same code that is used all over London!
During my class I got chatting to a fellow biker. After I had emoted about the minor trauma of trying the pay for the parking, my new biker friend said, ‘there’s an app for this…’ Again, I thought ‘why didn’t anyone tell me!’ So, during a break I found the right app and started a download. After a couple of minutes of nothing happening, I was presented with the delightful message: ‘Error downloading: 504’.
A really good interaction design principle is that you should always try to design systems which minimise what users need to remember (there’s this heuristic that has the title ‘visibility of system status’). On this system, you needed to remember loads of different numbers and codes. The task is pretty simple. There is a fixed fee. The only variable that you might want to enter is either the length of the stay (in days) and the choice of the vehicle. But what happens if your phone runs out of charge and you want to use a friends phone to pay? You’ll then have to make a telephone call with an operator, all for the sake of one pound twenty.
There’s also the environment to contend with. I had to take gloves off, fumble around in my pockets for my mobile phone and then enter numbers. The information sign was pretty small (and I can’t remember it mentioning anything about using an app). I dread to think how difficult the process is if English isn’t your first language, and you don’t know that Westminster has bike parking fees.
One final thought is that one approach to learning more about the user experience is to observe users in the things that they do. This is an approach that has drawn heavily from the social sciences, and on Open University modules such as M364 Interaction Design, subjects and techniques such as Ethnography are introduced. Another approach to learning about user successes and failures is to search on-line, to learn about the problems other people have experienced. Although this isn’t explicitly covered in M364, it is an interesting technique.
All this said, the second time that I needed to pay, I used the ‘pay by phone’ parking app. The ‘504’ error message that I wrote about earlier had miraculously disappeared (why not a message that says, ‘please try again later?) and I was able to download the app and then press a couple of on-screen (virtual) buttons and enter in the last four numbers of my credit card (again, a number that I haven’t yet memorise, since no other system asks me for it…). I even managed to pay for the right bike, this time!