Ticket machines: on trying to be helpful, even if intention did not match outcome

Working with people who study human error and human-computer interaction means that each example of individual gormlessness or confusingly designed interface is not only an everyday annoyance, as it always was, but also small bit of anecdotal evidence to giggle about later. I’ve laughed myself silly at the tales of a colleague who couldn’t work out how to open his hotel room and ended up falling out of it when he worked out that it opened outwards and not inwards.

Here’s an email I sent to the CHI+MED team back in January after I tried to be helpful to an older couple who were trying to buy a train ticket.

Ann Blandford (CHI+MED’s principal investigator, based at the UCL Interaction Centre) has also blogged about travel-related interface problems with the London bicycle hire scheme (‘Boris bikes’) on her HCI sense and safety blogIt was a dark and stormy night… accounting for the physical when designing the digital (13 November 2002)

Jo Brodie
CHI+MED Public Engagement Co-ordinator


Earlier today I was at a DLR (Docklands Light Railway) station on my way into the office when an elderly couple asked me how they could get to the platform (stairs not an option for them but fortunately the lift works) and also which platform they needed for their destination. Then they asked me if they needed a ticket and … to cut a long story short I think I managed to lose them three pound coins while we wrestled with the DLR ticket machine.

A bewildering array of ticketing options is available from these machines and we had to make the assumption that it was cheaper to buy a one-day travelcard rather than a single journey. There was an exciting sub-plot in the tale when I realised that because they were older they might have a Senior Railcard (they did, but it hadn’t occurred to them to suggest this as there was no obvious prompt on-screen) so that saved them some cash.

This also meant that we had to buy the tickets singly (if you select 2 adults it reroutes you to the full price tickets – no idea why). We managed to pay this with the man’s £20 note for a £5.90 ticket and of course the change was all in coins, which he struggled to pick up and his wife was helping him and it was all a bit flustery. I didn’t want to step in and start collecting someone else’s money.

For the second ticket we couldn’t work out how to insert some of the many coins we now had. The big blue flashing ‘pay here’ hole that took notes didn’t seem to accept coins, as we soon learned, though it did have a perfectly pound-coin-sized gap running around it in which we managed to get two pound coins stuck. Then we spotted the sleek black, no-flashing-lights coin-shaped slot just to the left of the main one. Unfortunately our time was up and the hole behind the sleek black slot that would have taken our coin, on pushing, snapped shut meaning that their third pound coin was pretty much wedged in there too.

In retrospect if we’d started the process again (we’d already cycled through the options several times trying to work out which was the better ticket option) and had fewer people queueing behind us, the coin slot would have re-opened and we’d have been on our way.

However at this point I was getting the impression that my helpful actions were haemorrhaging this poor couple’s pound coins from them so I admitted defeat and bought them the right ticket with my debit card. The third coin did eventually free itself and in picking it up the man dropped a ten pound note (we were in an uncovered area and it was raining very heavily, fun).

And all the while I was thinking “I must come back tomorrow and get a photo (of the interface) for the collection” 🙂

This entry was posted in CHI+MED people, interaction design and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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