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The UX Doctor: Fixing Seattle's new parking meters

Guest Opinion: Professional user experience designers analyze Seattle's proposed new parking meters.

Stuck card, connection failure, redundant charges — nearly every Seattle driver has had a frustrating experience with a parking pay station. So when the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced their plan to replace 2,200 parking meters over the next two years, Tactile, the industrial design firm I work with downtown, took note.

Then, when they installed seven trial pay stations along Fourth Avenue — literally in our front yard — with a request for public feedback, we got excited. Soon, one of those will be installed at 12,000 parking spaces throughout Seattle.

We wanted to understand why Seattle is investing in a parking meter overhaul in the first place. According to Project Lead Margo Polley, SDOT purchased a few rounds of pay stations over the last decade that simply haven’t held up to network demands and necessary upgrades.

The city definitely feels some buyer’s remorse. While some of the current meters appear new, most are more than eight years old and no longer connect reliably to process payments (thanks to outdated modems and low-bandwidth networks). In 2013, SDOT had to request an additional $450,000 from the Seattle City Council for an urgent modem patch, and they’re trying to avoid sinking more city dollars into technology that will quickly become obsolete.

SDOT also has other priorities for selecting the new meters, which Polley outlined: They need to include options for physical retrofits and technology updates, reliable network connectivity, adaptable pay rates for time-based “value pricing” and faster credit card processing. A full keyboard is also a requirement as the city is considering pay-by-plate systems, which use cars' license plate numbers rather than window stickers to enforce paid parking.

They'll also need to hold up for at least a decade.

The Tactile team designs tools that are both functional and attractive, with a heavy focus on creating a fluid, intuitive user experience. This applies to medical devices, professional-grade oscilloscopes, video game controllers and daily-use products not unlike our city parking meters. While constraints vary from project to project, the same principles of simplicity, ergonomics and intuitiveness apply across the board.

Armed with these principles, we headed downstairs to Fourth Avenue to get to know the seven proposed pay stations.

On first glance, it was clear that SDOT was attempting to offer drivers more options, but we felt that most of the seven prototypes missed the mark in terms of usability for the following reasons:

  • Feature creep. By adding a QWERTY keyboard, more time options and shortcuts, all of the pay stations wound up feeling cluttered. As a result, the machines' primary function (paying for parking) got lost and users ended up feeling overwhelmed.
  • Inconsistent visual language. Most pay stations had a mess of colors, button shapes and stickers, all of which created confusion. Icons seemed arbitrary, with no symbols in common with other Seattle signage.
  • Weak information architecture. Aside from hard-to-read type both on-screen and on the buttons (forget trying to read them at night), one of the biggest challenges we saw was a lack of visual organization. None of the pay stations presented a bold, simple set of 1-2-3 instructions for selecting time and payment that felt intuitive. There were extraneous buttons in strange places, or arrows pointing to other buttons that suggested reading more instructions on-screen — not exactly a clear and quick directive.
  • Poor haptics. It might seem like a minor detail, but more responsive buttons would help assure the user that their selections have registered correctly. A solid button feel and tactile feedback could mean the difference between an error-free ticket purchase and accidental overpayment.

Unfortunately, SDOT didn’t establish any specific usability criteria or define an optimal pay parking experience, which would be the first step for a user experience designer. That's partially the result of budget cuts, which forced the city to eliminate the centralized design office that might have overseen a cohesive visual system or user experience mandate.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 7:28 a.m. Inappropriate


I am saving this article as a “wonkspeak” reference filed under “Functional and attractive design tools heavily focused on creating a fluid, intuitive user experience,” but what it really reminds me of is that old joke, “What do you get when you cross a hyena with a slot machine..?”

“Something that takes your money and laughs at you.”

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

One wonders if they've offered their services or simply written a wistful piece here.

I don't know if Seattle City Government has an overall design guide, but if they don't, it's probably a case of not knowing what they're missing.

I was hoping to see a few wireframes or quick sketches of process and screen ideas.

tvjames

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

@tvjames: Tactile has been in contact with SDOT to understand what they're looking for in a new meter and did actually submit their feedback to the city.

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

The meters seem to be designed to be as confusing as possible. It shouldn't be that hard. And the city should hold off on upgrading the meters until 2016 until NFC tap-to-pay credit cards are the standard so they won't have to have card readers any more.

Have a button for 8 increments of time up to the total available for that spot. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 75 minutes, 90 minutes, 105 minutes, 120 minutes.

Push the button. The machine tells you how much you owe. Tap your credit card or payment-enabled NFC smartphone on the reader or insert cash. Get your sticker and on your way you go.

The only reason to add the keyboards is so people have to put in their license plate numbers, negating the ability to let someone else use the time you paid for. Even though the stated purpose of the meters is to let more people park closer to stores, adding the license plate feature means it is really just about making parking more expensive so more people take the bus to go shopping downtown and in Ballard.

talisker

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

..... The only reason to add the keyboards is so people have to put in their license plate numbers, negating the ability to let someone else use the time you paid for. Even though the stated purpose of the meters is to let more people park closer to stores, adding the license plate feature means it is really just about making parking more expensive.

It's offensive too.

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice post -- I hope the city listens to you. Adding the requirement of a Qwerty keyboard is a bad move. These should be designed to do one thing very well: Take payment for parking for people who do not have cell phones. Leave the license place approach to those who do have a cell/smartphone.

I can see the value of including flexibilty for future variable pricing, etc., I have to think its possible to do that without making the interface a mess. The proposed designs shown here are a classic case of requirements adding flexibility at the expense of customer experience.

KeithKyle

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

"I'm saving this article as a 'wonkspeak reference' for its laughable 'functional and attractive design tools heavily focused on creating a fluid, intuitive user experience.' It reminds me of the joke, “What do you get when you cross a hyena with a slot machine? Answer: A thing that takes your money and laughs at you.”

My favorite new wonkspeak word: "Trans-disciplinarian," glibly spoken at a City Hall presentation by a George Bush Jr Oral Roberts University graduate appointed to supposedly oversee and consult upon the Waterfront extravaganza-0-rama plaza space (above the Bertha atrocity) to make the entire fiasco intellectually palatable to abominably tasteless Seattle elite. Bill Gates Jr is such a schmuck.

Wells

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Trans-disciplinarian? A cross-dressing sadist. Perhaps even a cross-dressing masochist.

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Trans-disciplinarian is when various professional 'disciplines' work together. Easier to describe than to actually do; easier to make up a word that describes what should be happening, but isn't. The presentation went on and on with a dozen more of these stupid made-up words.

Wells

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

When a device such as a whisk reaches its pinnacle of useful design and practicality, no amount of new technology will improve it.

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 2:09 p.m. Inappropriate

How about this? Design a meter that accepts paper money. How hard could it really be? Vending machines do it. Nobody trusts plastic--why would we? And no one can possibly carry enough quarters to park at $4 an hour.

Jamming? REJECT. Counterfeit? REJECT! Wind and rain? Use a canopy. Remember the inscription on the dollar bill: "THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE".

gabowker

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 6:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Used to live in Seattle. Ah, "progress" of technology: quarters still worked at The Lusty Lad--and in my local laundramat yesterday....

richardw

Posted Mon, Apr 14, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

I love Pay by Phone. No standing in the rain waiting for the meter to respond. No dealing with different interfaces depending on which meter I park near, or trying to read a display that has been scratched by vandals or is unreadable in the best of circumstances No trying to calculate whether I've put in enough money and when it will expire.

Of course, Pay by Phone isn't the answer for tourists and occasional visitors and people without smartphones. I get that. But once you have it you won't want to live without it -- and you won't think twice about the modest fee.

bigyaz

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:04 a.m. Inappropriate

"and you won't think twice about the modest fee"

And that is exactly why they want you to use it. That, and you don't have the printed out sticker that you can give to the next person who wants to park in that space.

talisker

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

I think twice about the not-so-modest fee of having a smartphone.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:23 p.m. Inappropriate

The old meters of years ago were great. They took Canadian nickels, dimes, and quarters when the exchange rate was a 30-40% swing in our favor. Loved those 7 cent Canadian dimes!!

animalal

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 10:18 p.m. Inappropriate

From the article:
"A full keyboard is also a requirement as the city is considering pay-by-plate systems, which use cars' license plate numbers rather than window stickers to enforce paid parking."

Please tell me these full keyboards are a joke. SDOT can't possibly be serious. A user-interface nightmare. #3 really takes the cake. A full block of numbers and letters arranged in rows that are unfamiliar in any other device ever made. Absolutely horrible beyond belief.

I also agree with the commenter who said it said it should take bills. He's right. It should. Perhaps some comparisons should be made to what Metro uses for ticket machines for the buses. Or what Sound Transit uses for light rail. Those ticket machines accept bills.

If Seattle's SDOT wants to be 'innovative', perhaps they should make the user experiences more similar across transportation modes. That would be far more innovative than pushing the technology envelope and buying machines which are neither durable nor usable.

Posted Wed, Apr 16, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article Eva. I agree with your suggestion about the app and removing the convenience fee. I really liked Talisker's comment about waiting until near-field-communication (NFC) is widely available on credit cards and incorporating that into the technology for the pay stations. The City could also just put one station per block on the corner, so people would really have to walk if they wanted to use the pay station.
Although I'm kind of a tech geek, I thought the whole pay station thing was stupid to start with. Better to leave the space-by-space meters but equip them with technology, including NFC for tapping by credit card, traditional pay-by-coins, sensors (to see if the space was being used) and wireless, so you could actually see on a map which specific spaces were open before you even leave home. Gee you could even "reserve" a an space at home or on a smartphone app - once you did so and started to pay, the little yellow card would flash up in the meter, indicating the space was reserved, and the space would be available for you when you show up.
-bill

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:32 p.m. Inappropriate

There would be absolutely nothing to prevent a car from parking in that space -- whether or not you'd reserved it.

sarah90

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

How about some kind of device that you put coins into and a mechanical system displays a timer showing how much time you've paid for. When time runs out, a red "violation" flag could be displayed in the window. It's green - no electricity is needed and no network connection is required.

talisker

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

What a wonderful invention that would be!

sarah90

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