Sunday, February 3, 2008

Interactive Design: A Case Study Part 3 of 3

MTA MetroCard

This post is part of a series exploring interactive design in an everyday object, the MetroCard Vending Machine. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2

It is important to note that a machine like the MVM is futile if the system surrounding it, such as turnstiles and the MetroCards themselves, is not user-centered. The automated fare collection equipment for buses were seriously delayed in the mid-nineties because of the need to redesign, retest, and retool them. The equipment need to be redesigned after usability testing was conducted a South Bronx bus line between October and January 1993.

The original design allowed the rider to swipe the card, similar to subway turnstiles, but the new model requires the rider to insert the MetroCard into a slot where it will be electronically read and expelled. Through usability testing, design flaws and reliability problems led to “fairly substantial design changes,” according to Charles J. Broshaus, Jr., senior vice preside for operations support at the San Diego-based Cubic Corporation, which made the fare boxes and turnstiles. The designers originally wanted the cards to be read like subway turnstiles, but the unique circumstances of bus travel made this design problematic. The limited space on a bus, the use of one fare collection box (as opposed to many subway turnstiles) and the finesse one needs to swipe correctly probably led to the redesign.

In June 1993, the MTA began a seven-week experiment to test MetroCards and the computerized turnstiles. Seven Manhattan stations were chosen and 3,000 participants of varying locations and riding frequencies were selected through applications.

MetroCards were created after input from focus groups and usability trials. An important requirement of the cards is that they never leave the hand of the owner, which is safe and useful, especially during rush hour.

Conducting ethnographic research, transit officials wanted to gather information on how riders entered the subway. The results of the test would be used to better prepare instructions on how to use the MetroCard when it would be officially introduced. An official remarked, “This is going to be the biggest change in the culture of the subways since World War II, when the system was unified. We think the technology is working just fine. But it may take riders some getting used to.” This employee realized the importance of designing a system that would be successful with user-centered design methods, usability testing, observation, and analysis.

Since the MetroCard conversion from tokens was one of the largest undertakings in the MTA’s history, transit officials wanted to make sure that the design of the system was user-centered. “It’s true that the faster you roll out a system, the quicker you'll get adoption. But given the starkness of the change, we felt that we should be prudent and make sure that it runs well,” stated an official. This is especially true because the New York State Comptroller’s Office issued a report in 1992 questioning the MetroCard’s durability and the turnstile’s accuracy.

During preliminary usability testing and when the cards were first introduced to the public, the technique of swiping the card through the electronic slots of the turnstile proved troubling. As a daily subway rider myself, I can attest to the trickiness of mastering the swipe. It cannot be too fast or too slow or the turnstile will give you a message to swipe it again. A rider compared it to “swinging your hand at a slow tennis ball coming your way.”

When MetroCards officially replaced tokens in January 1994, the transition was smooth due to proper planning by the MTA and months of usability testing which prepared the MTA to introduce the cards in a way that New York City’s 3 million daily riders would understand.

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