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Tick, tock (death of a ticket salesman)
<abstract quote_style="none">The following story tells tale of a day spent with the ongoing user-experience (UX) catastrophe that is the interface of the <abbr title="Schweizerische Bundesbahnen">SBB</abbr>/<abbr title="Zürcher Verkehrsverein">ZVV</abbr> automated ticket machines. While it's certainly possible that our experiences are unique and that others can easily purchase their perhaps simpler tickets, we have found that veering ever-so-slightly from the beaten path leads into some very deep and dark weeds. Even were we to accept that the fault for the confusion engendered by the UI lay entirely with us, we can hardly be blamed for the mysterious time-delays and crashes. In short, SBB/ZVV: give <a href="http://encodo.com">Encodo</a> a call. We can help you fix this.</abstract> <h>Prologue</h> When I renewed my monthly train ticket a month ago, the lady behind the counter told me that I could have gotten it from a machine instead. She handed me a little pamphlet that explained how to use their ticket machines. I gave it back. In hindsight, this may have been a bit hasty. <h>The setup</h> My monthly pass was about to expire. I didn't need to get a whole month this time, so I figured that I'd just buy a six-pack of one-day tickets, in order to save money. How hard could that be? <h>Initial encounter</h> Instead of heading back to the human-powered ticket desk, I took the lady's advice and approached a machine. I got to the train station about eight minutes before my train, confident that this would be more than enough time for me to exercise my not insignificant technical skills to prise forth a ticket. On the screen, I poked a smiling SBB stock-photo customer in the eye to begin. I chose a normal ticket. I entered my destination. Then I elected to change the starting point (I already had a ticket covering part of the trip). Done. This was too easy. Now to get a multi-day ticket. Multi-day, multi-ride...what's the difference? I touch the info icon on each. A wall of text. Scanning doesn't elucidate anything. Tick, tock. I select multi-ride just to keep moving.<fn> I'm done early. All that remains is to pay for the ticket. I slide in my card... It's blocked. I turn it around and try again. Blocked. The card reader's apparently broken. The machine is blissfully unaware of this and pops up a helpful message, asking whether it should just forget the whole thing and cancel my transaction. I tell it not to cancel, but to go back to payment-method selection. Going back incurs an interminable pause. Tick, tock. I'll pay cash! The machine gives a maximum of twenty bucks in change. I have no twenties; only fifties. Can't pay cash. Wait! I have some change! What if I get a single-day ticket? *Type, type, type* That's only CHF5.80. *Scrounge, scrounge* I have CHF5.60. Tick, tock. Can I just tell the conductor that the machines are broken? Does that even work?<fn> I look over at the second ticket machine. There's a man standing in front of it, looking back and forth between two credit cards in his hands. Tick, tock. He seems to be having trouble deciding how he will pay for his ... CHF197.-- ticket.<fn> Tick, tock. The dam has broken. He's decided. Printing... Tick, tock. I jump on the machine after he's finished. I type in the same commands as I'd typed in just a minute before on the other machine, my fingers flying over the keys, marveling at the comparative speed of the ZVV machine vs. that of the SBB one. Wait...why can't I change the starting point of my journey like on the other machine? Where did that option go? Start over. Tick, tock. Why can't I choose a multi-ticket from this machine? Where did that option go? Fine. Get a single ticket. <i>Anything</i> at this point. Type in both towns again, muscle memory helping me along. Laaaaagggggg as I type. Why is searching a list of a few thousand items <i>so slow?</i> Choose a single ticket. Wait, why is it cheaper now? What changed? I could pay for this one with my change now.<fn> No time to think about it. Tick, tock. The bell is ringing. The barrier is lowering. The train is coming. There's the button for multi-card! It's on the final screen instead. I barely have time to register that <i>this is a much better place for that button</i> as I <i>punch it</i>. I can feel the rumble of the approaching train in my heels. I jam in my credit card. The reader works! Huzzah! I type my code. Nope, the reader's still warming up. Please hold... Tick, tock. I type in my code. I can hear the train now. Start printing! Tick, tock. Oh, the machine wants me to decide whether I want a receipt before it will do <i>anything</i> else. Yes, I want a receipt! Now start printing! The printer has started! I see the flashing light alerting me to the imminent arrival of my hard-won train ticket, still warm from the innards of the machine. A paper drops into the slot, lying awkwardly in the tray. It looks rather large. <iq>One of your products could not be printed.</iq> I reach in and pull out a forty-centimeter--long, curled monstrosity that purports to be my multi-ticket. In my haste, I assumed that this was a valid ticket. That this hideous thing with ink staining the front of it every which way was the product that my labors had brought into the world. I assumed that the aforementioned product that could not be printed was <i>my receipt</i>. I thought that while I might be in trouble with bookkeeping back at the office for not having a receipt, that at least I <i>had</i> a ticket for the train.<fn> Never mind all of that. I had a multi-ticket. An overlarge and misshapen one, perhaps, but nonetheless a ticket. Now, one final step to make it valid. Tick, tock. The train is gliding into the station I hurried over and proudly punched my ticket, the ink delineating today's date mixing illegibly into the mess of ink already printed there.<fn> I didn't care. The ticket had <i>printed</i>. I had <i>paid</i>. And I was getting on that train <i>legally</i>. With a <i>valid ticket</i>. Whether I could prove it to a conductor or not was another question, but my conscience was clear. I folded my ticket three times and put it in my backpack---because it wouldn't fit in my wallet. Despite my misgivings, no conductor came to make me reveal my shame. <h>The ride home</h> I got to the office and somehow the SBB came up in conversation that afternoon. I remembered my ticket and hauled its weighty length out of my backpack. My colleague laughed and expressed sincere doubt that this was a valid ticket. He thought I might slip by with it, but was almost certain that it had been annulled. This seemed like a reasonable theory, but I was beyond caring one way or the other. Still, when I arrived at the station three minutes early for my trip home, I spotted a ZVV machine on my platform. Brimming with confidence, muscle memory and experience, I staged an assault, fingers flashing as I once again unerringly entered my order. I was flying along, typing my destination, when... <iq>Your order encountered an error and could not be completed.</iq> The screen froze, wiped itself clean and restored the introductory graphic. You know, the one with the people grinning their way through a day made more magical by having been able to purchase their tickets from one of these wonderful machines. I turned and walked away. I would take my chances with my malformed freak of a ticket, blissful in the knowledge that the SBB couldn't hurt me anymore. I had stopped caring. I napped on the way home. No conductor dared to disturb my peace. <h>The ticket purchase. Take #2.</h> The next morning, I was at the station early again. More level heads had convinced me to try again and a good night's rest had restored my optimism. I went straight for the ZVV machine, avoiding the squat and grimly brooding SBB machine with its slow screen and faulty card reader. *Type, type, type.* Destination; starting location; multi-card; full days. Wait. What? CHF70.-? For six days? A whole month costs CHF119.- Argghhh. Now what did I do wrong? Back, back, back. Tick, tock. Choose multi-card; 1-hour. CHF30.- For 6 trips? That's three days of commuting. Dammit. This is a waste of money; I might as well just get a month. Back, back, back. Tick, tock. One month. Personal or transferable? Personal is cheaper; personal. Personal card number? What? Oh, it's on my half-fare card. *Dig half-fare card out of wallet* Tick, tock. Train's a'comin'. Start typing my half-fare card number. Crash. <iq>Your order encountered an error and could not be completed.</iq> Breathe. Start over. The bell's ringing. The barrier is lowering. The train's a'comin'. Just get a six-pack of 1-hour tickets. It's the cheapest option that lets me avoid having to buy a ticket again this evening. It's the least typing I can do. Tick, tock. Got it. Sweet Lord almighty, I think have a valid ticket. No, really. This time I think I have a valid ticket. *STAMP* <i>Now</i> it's valid. <h>Epilogue</h> On my way to my destination, I did the math again and realized that I would need another ticket in three days. A chill ran down my spine. Time to give up. I would return to the SBB counter and just buy a monthly ticket from a human being. At the counter, I asked for a renewal on the recently-expired monthly ticket I handed to him, but starting on the next Monday, my hand simultaneously cramping at the thought of how much touchscreen-typing that would have entailed. In seconds, he renewed it and handed me the new ticket, chirpily telling me, <iq>You could have bought this ticket on the machine instead. Just three taps and you'd have been done!</iq> That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered whether his family missed him yet. <hr> <ft>This would turn out to be incorrect, but it would also turn out not to matter (keep reading). Multi-day is a 24-hour pass for the day on which you stamp it; multi-ride is a 1-hour pass. The former is obviously more expensive than than the latter.</ft> <ft>A colleague would later tell me that, if you call the SBB and tell them that the machine is broken, and give your name, that you're free and clear. This seems like a lot of work on the customer's part. You try to pay for a train ride and end up working for the train company.</ft> <ft>Considering how my purchase on that machine turned out, I was happy that it had elected to mess with my purchase and not his, as he seemed to have had a much longer trip before him than I.</ft> <ft>It turned out that on the first machine I'd selected a <i>daily</i> ticket whereas my flying fingers had selected a <i>one-hour</i> ticket on the second machine. It was about 20% cheaper and fit my coin budget but I would have had to do everything again in Altstetten had I chosen that option.</ft> <ft>It turned out that I was wrong. Another colleague would tell me that day that this is the machine's way of telling me that the ticket is invalid. When it said that the second item---my receipt---could not be printed, it was notifying me that it had nullified the entire transaction. With a whole screen of space, the machine could have told me that in much clearer terms.</ft> <ft>Not only was the ticket invalid, but I had somehow managed to purchase the wrong zones anyway. Of the text I was barely able to decipher, I was almost certain that I didn't have the zones I needed. It explained why my ticket purchases on the next day would seem so much more expensive.</ft>