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meters appear new, most are more than eight years old and no longer connect reliably to process payments (thanks to outdated modems and low-bandwidth networks).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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