ITP – Physical Computing – Interactivity Observation

For my Physical Computing class, we’ve been asked to observe a piece of public interactive technology. I watched people at my subway stop buy MetroCards and enter the subway.

Starting with the cards, I have always found it odd that NY went with a system of cheap cards that require swiping. A much better system adopted by countless other cities use RFID cards, which require you to just tap or hold the card at the turnstile. NY’s system inevitably ends up with people having to swipe many times (at faster or slower speeds) or replace cards as the magnetic strip on the back wears out. Most tourists seem to have trouble getting the swiping thing down. There are no instructions and only limited feedback (“Swipe again” or “Swipe again at this terminal”). If the speed of their swipe is the problem, the system should alert them to that.

Observing people enter the subways in the morning around 8am on a weekday, I was surprised by how almost everyone was able to get through with one swipe (more than 90% of the people). The people I watched who did not get it in the first swipe were most likely to require three or more swipes (over 70% of the multiple swipers). I think the fact that it was rush hour meant that most riders I observed were not tourists, but rather people on their way to work. I am sure the rates are much worse in places like Times Square during the middle of the day.

Had NY adopted an RFID card system, most New Yorkers would require less time interacting with the MetroCard self-help terminals. They could add a bigger balance to their card since they would feel less secure that they would lose it (since they would not need to take it out of their wallet or purse to enter the subway) or that the card would wear out (flimsy, free cards tend to do that).

Nonetheless, the MetroCard terminals are generally well designed. Multiple language options are a plus for this city. Multiple payment options are also a plus, although the cash system is quite slow. The machines are very picky about the bills, so it takes some time to pay this way. The majority of the people I observed were using cards (debit or credit) to pay. I think this option alone greatly reduces the amount of time required between starting and getting a card. Once again, most commuters in a hurry seemed to be able to navigate the system quite quickly (in under a minute).