Monday, July 13, 2015

If you want to see the impact of poor user interface design, look no further than Canberra's parking meters

User interface design (or UX design) has been a buzz term for several years in government, with agencies spending significant money on ensuring their services and processes are easy for the broadest range of citizens to access and complete.

This is a good thing too - It makes good economic, reputational and even health sense to make it easy and fast for citizens to interact with government, reducing mistakes, stress and negative impressions.

Complex and difficult to user interfaces have higher error rates, resulting in frustrated and sometimes out-of-pocket citizens, extra costs for government and often a loss of trust and respect in the service outcomes and agencies responsible.

Anyone who still doesn't understand the value to both government and citizens need go no further to witness the issues poor interfaces and processes cause than Canberra's parking lots, where the current crop of parking meters are creating all kinds of problems for citizens.

For example the current parking meters in the Wilson-run car park on London Circuit follow a process that is both complex and invasive for customers, greatly increasing the time required to conduct one of the simplest tasks a citizen has to perform, renting a parking spot.

Firstly the machines have an unnecessarily complex interface, with six buttons, several unmarked, one each red and green and the other four all yellow. Little stickers have been manually attached to several of the buttons to explain their functions, although several of the yellow buttons are used for multiple purposes at different stages of purchasing a ticket and different times of day. Most have two name tags, one at top, one at bottom. Some of these tags were faded and hard to read, so would presumably need to be replaced regularly, adding unnecessary effort to the process of maintaining the machines and increasing the risk of errors by parkers.

The many buttons on Wilson parking machines in Canberra
The many buttons on Wilson parking machines in Canberra
Secondly the process to pay for a parking spot isn't as well explained or as easy as it could be. The machine first asks for a person's payment method (coins or card) and then requires entry of the car's license plate via a touch screen (so why buttons you may also ask).

Now, I don't know about everyone, but many people I know, including myself, haven't memorised our car license plates. It's never used as a form of personal identification and only rarely are people required to use it, usually when organising to service their car (and after the first service, normally a mobile number or name is sufficient for a mechanic). 

There's no benefit to the user to providing this license plate information - only to Wilsons, who I presume use it to prevent people ticket sharing if they leave a spot early, so they can profiteer by re-renting an already paid-up parking spot (which could be considered unethical profiteering, but is one of the techniques used to maximise profits in car parks).

Enter License Plate to begin (the second screen, so not the beginning!)
Enter License Plate to begin (the second screen, so not the beginning!)
There's also no signage in the car park, at the entrance or at the machine, to indicate to someone entering the car park, or waiting in line to buy a ticket, that they need to have this information at their fingertips. A parker new to the car park only finds out they need to have memorised their license plate when they reach this specific screen in the process - and they can't proceed any further without entering it.

The number and placement of machines in the car park can mean up to about a 50m walk back to your car to check, meaning a 100m round trip to retrieve this information. If there's a queue for tickets, common at peak times, this can make the ticket purchase process a 15 minute or longer process - intensely frustrating for busy professionals on their way to a meeting (speaking from personal experience).
Once past this screen the process was a little simpler, if followed precisely. The screen told me which yellow buttons to press (although I had to recognise that 'Select Earlybird' meant press the button which was marked as both 'Card' and 'E/Bird'), it took my coins quickly and efficiently dispensed my ticket.

Unfortunately the process wasn't as seamless for people ahead of me in the line who were using credit cards. Often the machine took three or more goes to recognise the card as valid and, once it had, it took on average 135 seconds to approve each transaction (I timed this). 

For credit card users, if you knew your license plate number (as regulars would learn to do), the entire process took approximately 3.5 to 4 minutes to complete, most of it spent choosing the right yellow buttons and waiting for credit card approval. At this rate each machine could service 15-20 people per hour. Cutting a minute off the credit card approval process would allow the machine to service 25-30 people per hour, This is up to a 100% increase in speed, resulting in less stressed customers, better patronage and more revenue for the car park.

Most of Canberra's public car parks have ACT government parking machines. These are different to Wilson's and have a slightly better interface - although they don't allow coin payments. 

Having used them frequently I'm not as able to look at them with unfamiliar eyes, however they provide better onscreen instructions to step people through the necessary steps, although I've witnessed people struggling to understand the '+' and '-' buttons for increasing or decreasing the parking time, with many people just paying the full amount rather than selecting a time period.

These machines don't require a license number, and don't have unnecessary buttons, so the overall impression is of a simpler process.

However these machines suffer from a similar issue to the Wilson machines for the credit card approval process, which takes a relatively long time for card approvals. While I appreciate this might be due to dialing into the bank each time, it does mean that at peak times there can be a long line of people standing and waiting for their turn, resulting in more stressed customers and potentially reductions in revenue.

I've also witnessed situations where there's insufficient room to queue safely for these machines, with people required to wait in a queue that snakes into the roads within the car park, where they and cars must dodge each other. This presents an increased risk of an accident, where a pedestrian is harmed by a car attempting to find a car spot, potentially increasing the legal risks to the ACT government.

Now these ACT government car parks do allow people to pay for their parking online, removing the queuing and waiting at the car park, when people may be rushed for time. This option is not well explained on the machines in the car parks, which is a shame as it could cut queues as people waiting could simply go online to pay. 

Incidentally I find this a very handy trick at Hoyts to avoid some of the really long queues for movies - despite their ridiculous surcharge on online purchases, when nudge theory suggests they should charge less for online purchases (including from the Candy Bar) to prompt greater take-up and reduce physical queues and staff time.

However I've heard and read many reports of people who have found online payment for car parking a frustrating process as, once parked, parking inspectors often give tickets to people who aren't displaying a parking ticket. This has even received media coverage

As a result I've not tried this process and likely won't try it until the ACT government makes it clear (on parking meters and via it's own media channels) that the online option is working correctly.

This issue seems to be purely a training and change management one, with parking inspectors needing some adjustment of their behaviour through training and support to ensure they check the online system before issuing tickets.

Tens of thousands of public servants use Canberra's parking machines regularly, and have likely noticed issues and possibly even expressed frustration with the user interface and process. Many would have adjusted their own behaviours to deal with the foibles of the systems - arriving a few minutes earlier to allow for credit card purchase approval time, memorised their license plate number and learnt the right sequence of button presses to achieve the outcome they need daily.

All of them should consider the user interface and process, reflecting on their own experience. How could it be made simpler and easier, particularly for parkers who don't use the parking every day?

Then take that thinking and reflect on the user interfaces and processes they create and administer within government. How could they be made simpler and easier for citizens and for public servants, while reducing the error rate and cost to government?

What is the impact of any poor design within their own systems - both to citizens and government? And what value could be delivered, and behaviours adjusted positively, by improving the user interface design?

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