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Unintelligent design

Richey Piiparinen  |  04/30/10 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transit

Remember the song on Sesame Street that went "One of these things is not like the other…"? Alright then, so: between this, this, and this, which one stands out? Why? Well, if you picked the last one, and then told yourself because the user interface design is more buckshot than thoughtfully placed, you win. Unless of course you are an RTA user, because then-you lose. You lose time, patience, and faith in the fact that a region's public transit is not only about mobility, but it is about the experiences experienced when you are trying-in life-to get around.

Imagine, then, for a moment[1]: you are new to the city and are trying to buy a ticket. People are behind you. The train is rumbling closer. Sweating, you study this big red-faced machine that has its functions spread out like a bowl of spilled spaghetti: coins up top, dollars below, a slit here, a slit there, no real direction as to what to do first, a bunch of numbers with R's in front of them, some of the R's are usable, others hang like shoes on a wire, then you say: forget it-I am just going to touch the screen to see what happens. But nothing. As it is not a touch-screen. Just made to look like one. And so the train comes. You get on. You breathe easy. Until you get off at Tower City and are locked into the turnstile, ticketless-soon explaining yourself to anyone appearing to care.

Now, is this any way to introduce yourself as a city? RTA's Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) Director Brad Chase doesn't think so. "People should be leaving thinking that Cleveland gets it," Chase says, reaffirming his belief that a city's transit bones are a main medium from which impressions of a locale are made.

To be fair, RTA knows that these new ticket vending machines are awful, and because of that have yet to pay Affiliated Computer Services nearly $9 million out of a $10 million contract. Before full payment, they want certain things fixed, like making the unnecessarily difficult process of ticket selection just manageably difficult. For instance, on one particular screen you get to add more or lessrides per ticket, but instead of saying that you get the verbiage: "Increment" or "Decrement". Seriously? Decrement? (That sounds punishing.) Anyway, that screen is gone in the 2.0 version that is supposed to be later rolled out, as is much of the other sequential slop…

Yet while the ticket-choosing may be streamlined, the machine's buckshot body-it stays. Since there is just no way to fix that (outside of scrapping the bunch). Also, the red facings are permanent, as the Braille-inscribed, uni-color panels are too expensive ($4,000/panel) to replace. In essence, then: it is what it is. At least that's what RTA thinks. And so like the acquiescing being stuck with a mistake, the downplaying of the disaster has soon followed. That downplaying like: it's good enough, and the majority of ticket-buyers will get better with practice, not unlike juggling; or: we got bigger things to worry about in Cleveland, like joblessness, and the fact we got so many houses bombed out with darkness and boards. In other words, RTA says this ticket thing is small, comparatively speaking-so don't sweat the small stuff Cleveland.

Alas, however, public transit rests on the efficacy of the minutia. These small things like the second of an arrival, the loudness of the automated voice, and whether a ticket machine is designed with the utility of the user in mind. As for the latter, Chase has gone so far as to present the RTA brass back in June of '09 with a way to mediate the poor user interface, in fact even utilizing his (admittedly) lay design skills to create a color- and number-coded façade that--quite frankly--isn't so bad. "We got to make this simple," Chase says, referring to a multitude of issues. "The scheduling, the method of payment-we have got to make this simpler…"

Agreed. We have got to make things simpler. Not just RTA, but with many of the quasi-public entities. In fact, the ticket design thing is just a tip in that mountain of ways the City avoids getting the low-hanging fruit right if only because our eyes our constantly off the immediacy and onto that great big shadow hovering over us that is our self-pity turned mediocrity in function. Enough. There are no great whales out there to hunt. There's just this boat called Cleveland, and so lets come back down to scale and look for leaks…

And so what could this mean for RTA? Well, for starters this means knowing that in order for the system to function it must be "designed up", or designed with the foot, the hand, and the eye in mind--which means making that step just right for the disabled, and the presence of a handrail there for the mature, and signage clear for the visitor. Because these things matter, as a city is built through the accumulation of experiences that its citizens carry with them. And this, then, is what Chase is fighting for, or the ease at which a system blends folks across their city. "For the elderly person, the child, the first-time user," Chase says, "it is important they don't feel humiliated, confused, or afraid. And I think it speaks volumes for a system that designs with the experiences of the user in mind."

[1] Or don't imagine a thing, just read a first hand account of an interface designer fumble and fail when trying to buy a ticket.

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