Tommi Moilanen // February 28 2017

The Art of Buying the Wrong Type of Train Tickets

No matter what country you have just landed in it seems that buying train tickets, or metro or bus for that matter, at the airport is always a hurdle. The area around the ticket machines is packed when hordes of people try to figure out which ticket machine to use and how to buy the correct tickets. Nevertheless, usually using the self-service kiosks is still faster than waiting in line to see an actual person that could help you.

It seems to me that most tickets machines are quite hard to figure out for users encountering them for the first time. I’ve had my fair share of troubles myself. I’m sure I’ve bought too expensive tickets for my needs and I’m still not entirely sure why I needed two separate tickets to board the Narita Express for a one way trip and since this was the case why did the machine only print me one ticket. The other one I needed to buy separately from a helpful station agent once the gates to the platform area had rejected my first attempt to board the train.

The ticket machines in the Washington Metro have probably been the most convoluted that I’ve encountered to date even topping that Japanese experience. Luckily the transit agency has produced a video that explains the system. You can check it out on YouTube. Don’t forget to read the comments.

Sure, you could do some research beforehand but I take these situations as opportunities to see if I can figure out the user interface on the spot. Even if you know the specific ticket you are trying to buy, actually doing so is often not that straightforward. Based on the amount of people asking for help or fumbling with the machines I’m not the only one taking my time to get through the process successfully.

Intuitive user interfaces are often talked about and held as a goal and aspiration for us professionals designing those points of interaction. In most other cases users have ample time to explore the UI on their own pace to familiarize themselves with it. You can test an app you just downloaded without a line forming behind you. The real test however is when you don’t have that luxury.

Even UIs with a straightforward logic don’t guarantee that you won’t run into trouble if you don’t understand the transit system as a whole. For example, are there different zones or does a ticket cover the whole metropolitan area? At what zone are you currently in? Are there specific tourist tickets available? Should you buy individual tickets every time you need to travel somewhere or a time based ticket? What modes of transportation are covered with the ticket? Is the UI trying to get you to buy the most expensive or the most fitting ticket type? And so on. UIs should help answer these questions instead of just laying down the options within layers of menus without much context. Here are the options, pick the one for you. But what do they mean?

This, in a way, very specific situation that notwithstanding seems to exist at most international airports highlights the difficulty of creating intuitive user interfaces. People come with their own expectations, habits and mental models and it’s the UIs (well, actually the designer’s) job to take this into account and accommodate for it.

Helsinki metropolitan region for example recently introduced a new type of card readers to buses and trains and it proved to be problematic since straphangers were so used to dealing with the old card readers with different type of usage logic. Funnily enough the old readers were widely derided when they were introduced because of their lacking instructional marking, unresponsive buttons and cumbersome interaction pattern where you needed to place the card in a specific spot in front of the reader while simultaneously pressing one of the unresponsive buttons. Now when these issues were fixed with the new reader, which has its own faults, it suddenly emerged as some kind gold standard of card readers. Fascinating.

Once again, great design starts to take shape way before doing the first user interface sketches or prototypes. Start by understanding people, the current and prospective users, and the context.

Photo credit: Steven Vance

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