Errors and frustrations

A few days ago, I witnessed this exchange on the Caltrain:

The conductor was checking tickets in the carriage. The man sitting a couple of seats away from me tapped his Clipper card (an RFID based payment card) on the handheld verification device as the conductor walked down the aisle. It gave an unenthusiastic buzz.

The man looked up surprised. “I have a monthly pass,” he exclaimed, slightly exasperated. “I tapped on and off on Friday last week and it worked fine.”

The monthly pass on the Caltrain works this way: after purchasing a monthly pass, the passenger is required to tap his or her Clipper card on the card reader payment device located in the stations on the first trip of the month. The Pass will then be activated and valid for the rest of the month.

The conductor said something and shrugged. The man continued, “I purchased a monthly pass, I have no idea why it did not worked. I have shit loads of money on the card, you can see that. There’s no reason why I would not pay for a ticket.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the conductor mumbled as he wrote and issued him a citation. A citation on the Caltrain costs around 200 bucks. He added that he could contest the citation if he can show proof that he purchased a monthly pass by showing a receipt, or something.

The conductor left and the man sat there holding the citation ticket on his hands. His face was as black as a thunderstorm.

There was something about this conversation that felt immensely wrong. It felt misplaced, displaced, like in empty awkward hole on a neatly arranged row of books. The thing is, I believed this man. And yet, I could find no fault in the conductor.

What I witnessed however, was the failings of a system that collapses upon its participants. The Caltrain employs an honor system, such that the burden of proof lies solely on the shoulders of its participants. It sounded almost logical. Caltrain is a proof of payment system; of course every commuter who is honest and honorable will purchase a ticket. If you are caught without a ticket, I bet you’re up to no good, it implies.

Only that it did not account of the possibility of kinks on the system. Like a machine that was probably malfunctioning, or a person who was forgetful. However whenever a kink like this arises in the system, it levies a huge unforgiving fine onto the individual who was found at fault. The system presumes anyone who is found deviant is intentionally deceiving and depriving the system, and punishes them mercilessly.

As I came to this realization, I felt a little warm behind my ears. Embarrassment that I participate in a system like this. I have this nice badge of immunity that is an annual pass paid by my employer. I could simply flash the badge at the conductor and that will absolve me from all of the deficiencies in this system while this poor man here, obviously frustrated beyond reprieve, had to suffer through all the intended and unintended obstacles. Statistically, every system must suffer some degree of failure at any point in time, and someone must pay the price. Today, it is his turn.

I wanted to end this parable with a note about design. Good design is based on a foundation of empathy. In design, the failure case is a very important scenario, since it is most often where users and frustration encounter each other – people and systems are never infalliable. Will the system fail gracefully, suggest a remedy or covertly assist them in providing the correct inputs so that they can extract value out of the system? Is error even an error? Take the modern search engine for example, when the user puts in a search term that is highly ambiguous, they often return best effort results, and takes measures to suggest related terms that the user might be looking for. In effect, there is no error case in the search experience. How can we turn a negative experience, into a positive one?

Negative or not, they are transportation, so they could probably get away with it.