The UX Doctor: Fixing Seattle's new parking meters

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

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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.

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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.

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meters appear new, most are more than eight years old and no longer connect reliably to process payments (thanks to outdated modems and low-bandwidth networks).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

Despite a strained budget, a burdensome bureaucracy and limited hardware options, SDOT earnestly wants Seattle to be among the most innovative cities worldwide in terms of parking policy and implementation. Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, have experimented with chips embedded in busy streets to help adapt the price — and therefore parking inventory — at peak times. Calgary and Pittsburgh are phasing in pay-by-plate systems that reduce waste and enforcer time.

What’s a forward-thinking but under-resourced city to do?

In our opinion, Seattle should start by establishing a set of basic usability principles that SDOT can incorporate into future projects: uniform controls, consistent graphics, intuitive information architecture and an ergonomic interface that feels natural to interact with. We believe even minimal improvements to the trial machines’ interface could make paying for street parking easier and faster.

The city should also do more to emphasize its existing mobile parking payments. First rolled out in August 2013, PayByPhone is a city service that lets drivers pay for parking through a smartphone app or by calling a toll free number.

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This has a lot of benefits for drivers:

  • Drivers can pay for parking from their car — and add time from a remote location.
  • The app sends automatic reminders to a user’s phone when parking time is running out.
  • Motorcycle and scooter owners don’t need to stick pay station receipts to their bike headlights.
  • Transactions are quicker, since the app stores previous payment and license plate information.
  • Drivers can look up past transactions and print parking receipts online.

The city, meanwhile, benefits from better data integration and less wear and tear on physical meters (which means fewer repairs). They can collect cash from meters less frequently, since more payments are digital, and meters can be easily adapted to demand-based pricing. Not to mention the fact that more people add time (and therefore revenue) remotely when they underestimate their parking time and would have previously risked a ticket rather than making a second trip to the meter. From a user experience standpoint, the PayByPhone app can be updated regularly, allowing for new features and fixes.

There are a couple of drawbacks: PayByPhone users pay a thirty-five cent convenience fee for each parking transaction. And calling PayByPhone from a non-smartphone doesn’t really save much time over using a physical pay station (unless coins are the alternative). But for smartphone-carrying, tech-loving, efficiency-craving drivers — particularly those who park in South Lake Union, downtown and Capitol Hill — PayByPhone is a boon.

So far in Seattle, however, PBP has only seen a 3 percent adoption rate. (About 125,000 parking purchases were made via PayByPhone from August 2013 to April 2014.) SDOT and PayByPhone representatives agree that initial marketing campaigns helped jumpstart the program, but more word of mouth will be essential for increased adoption. Drivers who do use PayByPhone, they said, generally prefer it to traditional meters. The biggest barrier is simply lack of awareness.

So how can Seattle increase adoption to take advantage of a technology that seems to be effective and user-friendly? Try some incentives: Waive the convenience fee or discount parking for residents, as Miami has done. Or put energy into a viral promotional campaign that incentivizes Seattle drivers and visitors to download the PayByPhone app before they’re even near a meter.

More usage means better parking data and more revenue for the city — and a better user experience for drivers who just don’t want to deal with confusing meters.

Though street trials for the machines ended on April 11th, SDOT is taking online feedback on their Parking Pay Station Trial through April 15th. We hope the city will learn from user feedback and make usability tweaks to both the new station interface and any future systems. If the cloud in replacing 2,200 parking meters is choosing among models that are decidedly more reliable, but only slightly more user-friendly, PayByPhone might just be the silver lining.


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