MetroCard Mess

“The MetroCard Vending Machines in New York’s subways are a classical case of programmer-directed hierarchical menu hell, forcing the user to make choices without knowing the consequences, and throwing the user off altogether at the smallest problem. With a little careful thought, we are able to improve the interaction considerably, while at the same time extracting some valuable heuristics for interaction design. ” Lars Pind

Submitted by my former student Matt Hoy, who writes: “Excellent write up, well thought out points. The reader responses at the bottom are a little troubling. Do people reall view usability reviews as ‘attacks’ on the current design? Is it normal for usability testers to encounter this kind of opposistion?”

MetroCard MessPinds)

Yes, Matt, there’s often a huge gulf between the brilliant “ar-TEESTS” who dream up fancy designs, and the usability trolls who seem to scour the underworld seeking the densest, stupidest users to botch up even the simplest transactions. In retail, the cusomter is always right — even when the customer is obviously wrong. Good design does not try to force the user to behave a certain way — instead, it watches the way people behave, and then builds a system so that people can use it effectively by doing what comes naturally. Pind suggested that it wasn’t necessary for the New York metro subway vending machines to present the user with a language-selection menu first, but a reader comment pointed out that people will walk past a machine displaying the “wrong” language. So, Pind’s suggestions can’t all be taken without scrutiny — and they would, of course have to be subjected to usability testing by a wide range of users. One good way to do that is to put two machines with different interfaces side-by-side, and see which one gets more use. Let’s just hope somebody from the New York transit authority read the article and the reader comments.