Talking Usability: It’s Not Your Fault!

Cheery BlossomsSpring in Washington, D.C. welcomes cherry blossoms, mild temperatures, and a few three-day holidays. Washington, D.C. has plenty of reasons to attract visitors: the best museums anywhere, renowned restaurants, and plenty of historical sites. Getting around the city is easy: walk, bicycle, or take the metro. Those who take the metro (i.e., subway) must cope with tired children and bewildered parents, baseball fans commuting to the stadium, and people commuting home from day at the office. Tourists are swept up in the hustle and bustle, which causes them to become confused and disoriented, and all they want to do is to get home.

The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) sells transit tickets (paper and plastic) at all metro stations. The paper ticket machines are painted brown and bright white numbers to identify the steps to purchase a ticket. The plastic ticket machines are touchscreen kiosks that resemble an arcade machine. I use the ticket machines every week to add money to my metro card, and sometimes I buy plastic tickets because I forgot my own at home. I consider myself an expert at using these machines.

One day on my way home, I saw a husband and wife standing in front of a ticket machine appearing lost and confused as commuters rushed by them at lightning speed to catch their trains. They wanted to buy two tickets to take the metro to Alexandria where they were staying with their daughter. The husband remarked that they were visiting museums all day and were tired and hungry, and all they wanted to do was to go home. I explained that they had the option to buy a paper ticket or a metro card; the instructions were clearly marked on the machine; unfortunately they did not see it. They agreed to buy metro cards because they might take another trip downtown.

I showed them how easy it was to buy a metro card—simply touch the screen and enter cash or a credit card. I touched the screen several times and nothing happened. Just when I was ready to give up, the screen flashed a message instructing me to insert money. However, the machine would not accept payment. My impatience began to show because the machine was not working as it was supposed to. I asked for help from a WMATA officer. After several attempts to insert money, he was able to buy only one metro card. The WMATA officer stayed with the couple to coax another card out of the machine. I departed to catch the next train home.

The lesson to be learned about anything that operates with the mind and body of a computer is not to blame yourself when it doesn’t work correctly. Impatience leads to frustration, and frustration leads to confusion. Computers have a mind of their own and they are unpredictable. It’s a terrible feeling to think that although you are following the instructions that a failure for a device to work correctly is your fault. Yes, patience is a virtue and only good things come to those who wait. However, they might not have tried to buy a ticket to ride the metro at rush hour.

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