Week 3: Public Interactive Technology Observation

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The convenience of riding an express Select Service Bus in NYC is that you can jump on through any of the doors and skip the single-file queue to dip your Metrocard as you would on a local bus. Crowds easily merge on and off at stops with less hassle and waiting. Key to this system is that you must retrieve a paper ticket from the vending machines at the bus stop BEFORE you board. Failure to provide a ticket during a surprise inspection results in a fine upwards of $100.

I observed riders’ interactions with the SBS vending machines at the corner of 14th Street and 1st Avenue for the M15-SBS route. Both major thoroughfares in the city, I expected quite a bit of usage, especially just after 3:00pm on a Monday afternoon in late September when students were streaming out of school. In fact there was a constant flow of pedestrians of all ages to the machines before and during each bus arrival, and everyone I observed did in fact board a bus minutes after receipt of their tickets. I assumed that people would expect a quick, no-hassle exchange, especially in the event of an approaching SBS bus.

The entire transaction consists of fours steps: (1) press the start button, (2) insert your funded Metrocard, (3) retrieve your Metrocard, and finally, retrieve your paper ticket for the bus.

Most folks arrived in haste ready with their Metrocard in hand. A smooth completion of the four steps averaged about four seconds. However, not everyone had it that easy. The most common difficulties included attempting to insert the Metrocard before pressing start and not inserting the card correctly. For the latter, either the card oriented upside down or in the opposite direction or customers missed the slot altogether. If they mis-aimed, then I noticed customers repeatedly thrusting their card forward until they finally made it or pausing to carefully feed their card forward. By far the easiest part of the interaction was retrieving their Metrocards and their paper bus tickets.

Folks rarely checked the visual cues and feedback on the display, except in one case: it seemed that one machine was repeatedly abandoned after the sequence was initiated. People moved on with confused faces to the next one. Upon closer inspection I found a jittering screen, although the same content appeared as on the others when I pressed start. Still, it was an anomaly in the bunch, and the flickering indicated that something might be off and unreliable.

Considering Crawford, this is a very low form of interaction although quite utilitarian: you press a button, insert your card, and one thing happens to get you on your way quickly and more importantly, keep the traffic flowing smoothly.

But our reading from Norman was on my mind for most of the observation. I confess that I chose this particular interactive technology based on my personal experience: though I’ve used these plenty over the past couple of years, the start button eludes me everytime. I circle round and round until I spot it, seemingly lost in the blue.

Now no one during my observation session seemed to experience this hesitation, but since I was there to look, I did so closely at the interface. Immediately, Norman came to mind: if explicit instructions are posted, are they understandable, relatable, and if graphics are utilized, universal? Well yes, color-coded instructions are posted with clear text and graphics along the very top.

But today I noticed that the color coding pattern at the top is mismatched with the actual operational controls below. Ah! I see blue (1), yellow (2), and red (3) indicating my order of steps, but the physical features with which I’m expected to use are displayed as red (3), blue (1), and yellow (2). Why is the pattern different? I deduced that I miss the start button because I expect it run through the transaction from left to right, just as it’s indicated above. Though I can easily identity the controls, any possible relationships that I might form between the operations and the expected outcomes falls apart for me. Mystery solved!