Ticket off (reprise)

Last year we looked at the way that the pricing structure of no-change-given ticket machines is often – apparently – designed to lead to overpayment, and I posed the question of whether councils/car park operators actually draw up their budget based on a significant proportion of customers overpaying.

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, DevonParking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

I’m still no closer to answering that last question, but I was reminded again of this ‘the house always wins’ idea last week by this ticket machine (above) in Totnes, Devon. Look at the price intervals: 25p, 90p, £1.70, £2.55, £4.20, £5.75 – those are some rather odd figures. The price jumps – 65p, 80p, 85p, £1.65 and £1.55 – are odd in themselves, but given that the machine does not give change, it’s a fairly safe bet that,unless they carry a lot of change, many people parking for 1 hour will pay £1.00 rather than 90p, many 2 hour customers will pay £2 instead of £1.70, and many 3 hour customers will pay some amount larger than the very awkward £2.55. Why not £2.50? What’s the logic behind that extra 5p if not to force overpayment by people not carrying a spare fivepence?

One car park visitor was clearly sufficiently irritated to label the machine with exactly what he or she thought of the pricing policy (third photo above)!

Dublin Bus ticket details at Dublin Airport

An interesting case: Dublin Bus

One detail which was thrown up in the comments last time by Undulattice is that at least one no-change-given policy, that of Dublin Bus, is accompanied by the ability to get a refund if you really want, by taking your receipt to Dublin Bus’s headquarters (which are at least located in a fairly prominent place in the city centre), as explained on signs such as the above (photographed at Dublin Airport earlier this year):

Dublin Bus have operated an ‘Exact Fare – No Change’ policy for years now. In the case of over-payment, they issue a ticket receipt which can be exchanged at Dublin Bus HQ.
Oh, and they don’t accept notes either!

and Damien added this:

I can’t remember which one, but there was a charity in Dublin that started collecting the Bus refund receipts and cashing them as donations. Great idea.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, St Francis Hospice and Barnardos are among the charities actively asking for the receipts – as Barnardos says:

Did it ever occur to you that you are throwing away real money – and lots of it!

As much as €750,000 a year is going into rubbish bins across the county!!

In 2004 there were over 150 million passenger journeys on Dublin Bus routes right across the city. If ONLY 1% of those journeys were over–paid by 5c that’s a total of €750,000 that often ends up in the bins!

This forum discussion from 2004 suggests (how accurately, I don’t know) that Dublin Bus has more than €9 million in unreturned change. As with the car parking overpayments, how do accounting standards deal with this kind of overpayment arrangement? Can budgets be drawn up based on projections of massive overpayments along these lines? Are there businesses (bus companies, car parks, etc) that are only profitable because of the scale of overpayment? Some forum posts suggest that drivers may pocket and redeem a lot of the receipts themselves, which may further complicate the picture further.

The charity initiatives are a fascinating way to ‘fight the system’ and achieve some good – a mechanism for recovering overpayment en masse – and it does make me wonder just how much overpayment Transport for London’s bus ticket machines receive each year, and how that money is accounted for.

A different strategy

Back to parking ticket machines, Carrie McLaren of the brilliant Stay Free! commented that:

…in New York, like most major cities in the US, parking meters are priced way below their market value – so “the house always wins” claim wouldn’t apply here. Anyone able to find a metered spot is getting a real bargain, even if they don’t have the right change.

This is an interesting strategy, very different to that used by most car parking operations in the UK. Restricting the number of spaces and not deliberately overcharging for them seems to be clearly targeted at discouraging drivers from even thinking of driving into the city, while not ripping off those who need to do so. This generally does not happen in the UK, where parking charges (and fines) are a major revenue source for councils and private operators, and while high charges (and forcing overpayment) may pay lip-service to ‘discouraging traffic’, the still-full car parks would tend to show up that this does not work. I’ll look further at this, and ‘architecture of control’ strategies for parking, in a future post.

Changing behaviour: water meter taps

Three student projects on show at Made in Brunel earlier this month took the idea of moving the function of a water meter to the tap (faucet) itself, to act as a ‘speedometer‘ and thus encourage users to reduce their water usage (or wastage). The three projects, while similar, have slightly different emphases:

Tap Meter, by Henry Ellis-Paul

Henry Ellis-Paul’s Tap Meter, above, which was also exhbited at the Ideal Home Show, shows the user the amount of water used in that particular instance. As he says, “this information changes the user’s habits and behaviour through involvement and emotional attachment to the product” – it could also presumably be used to measure out the amount of water used for recipes or to ensure that we each drink the right amount each day.

Water & Energy Saving Tap, by Stefan Grosvenor

Stefan Grosvenor’s Water and energy saving tap (above) additionally addresses electricity usage due to hot water, combining both water and electricity usage in an ‘equation’ to make users more aware of the total impact they have each time they turn the tap. The project was intended as a future concept for the Red Cross, to be used as part of a campaign which would “both help others less fortunate, as well as educating users with their potential.”

Squirt, by Meghana Vaidyanathan

Meghana Vaidyanathan’s Squirt (above) is specifically intended for children, hence the bright colours and anthropomorphism of the design:

At our current consumption rate, it is predicted that we could use up to 40% more water in the next 20 years. Squirt is an awareness-based water meter designed for children aged 3 to 6 and aims to instil conservational etiquette in the mind of a child. Squirt has a child-friendly interface and displays the amount of water consumed over a period of time from the tap to which it is attached.

The term “conservational etiquette” is interesting – how easy is it to instil a social constraint of this kind in western societies where the resource is (apparently, at least) in abundance? Most of us have a conservational etiquette regarding money, and thus many ‘speedometer’-type devices – such as Wattson – incorporate a display translating the energy usage into its financial consequences.

This could, of course, go further – as Crosbie Fitch comments,

[Car] fuel economy would probably be greatly improved if there was a UI that could simulate the consumptive clink of a particular denomination of coin (at the users’ choice).

and:

I’m not sure how many owners of gas guzzlers would like to enable the sounding of a cash register ding each time 10 pence worth of fuel had been consumed.

Just imagine the cacophony whenever the Chelsea tractor driver uses kick-down.

Portioning blame

McDonald's: Image from Flickr user DRB62
McDonald’s, Toledo, Ohio, 1967. Image from DRB62 on Flickr.

We’ve looked previously at the effect of portion/packaging sizes as a ‘choice of default’ architecture of control, and I’m aware that I have not yet reviewed Dr Brian Wansink‘s excellent Mindless Eating, which examines this and other psychological aspects of the way we eat. I will do this in due course.

In the meantime, though, here’s an interesting account of the invention (probably one instance of many) of super-sizing as a specific technique for increasing consumption, from Michael Pollan‘s fascinating The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

…The soda makers don’t deserve credit for the invention of super-sizing. That distinction belongs to a man named David Wallerstein…[who] in the fifties and sixties …w orked for a chain of movie theaters in Texas, where he labored to expand sales of soda and popcorn – the high mark-up items that theaters depend on for their profitability. As the story is told in John Love’s official history of McDonald’s, Wallerstein tried everything he could think of to goose up sales – two-for-one deals, matinee specials – but found he simply could not induce customers to buy more than one soda and one bag of popcorn. He thought he knew why: Going for seconds makes people feel piggish.

Wallerstein discovered that people would spring for more popcorn and soda – a lot more – as long as it came in a single gigantic serving. Thus was born the two-quart bucket of popcorn, the sixty-four ounce Big Gulp, and, in time, the Big Mac and the jumbo fries, though Ray Kroc himself took some convincing. In 1968, Wallerstein went to work for McDonald’s, but, try as he might, he couldn’t convince Kroc, the company’s founder, of supersizing’s magic powers.

“If people want more fries,” Kroc told him, “they can buy two bags.” Wallerstein patiently explained that McDonald’s customers did want more but were reluctant to buy a second bag. “They don’t want to look like gluttons.”

Kroc remained skeptical, so Wallerstein went looking for proof. He began staking out McDonald’s outlets in and around Chicago, observing how people ate. He saw customers noisily draining their sodas, and digging infinitesimal bits of salt and burnt spud out of their little bags of French fries. After Wallerstein presented his findings, Kroc relented, approved supersized portions, and the dramatic spike in sales confirmed the marketer’s hunch… One might think that people would stop eating and drinking these gargantuan portions as soon as they felt full, but it turns out hunger doesn’t work that way. Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise.

As I say, we’ll come back to this and similar issues in due course, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind the implications of the unit bias phenomenon within design generally. Where else does it apply?

Deliberately creating worry

A European airport

Swedish creativity lecturer Fredrik Härén mentions an interesting architecture of control anecdote in his The Idea Book:

One of the cafés in an international European airport was often full. The problem was that people sat nursing their coffees for a long time as they waited for their planes to depart. The café asked itself: How can we encourage our customers to vacate the tables more quickly?

Their first ideas were probably along the lines of uncomfortable chairs, a seat charge, clear the tables immediately and so forth. However, the idea they finally decided upon was this: to turn off the flight monitors in the café! This made people worry about missing their flights, which led to them looking for monitors that worked, thus leaving empty tables. When the café had enough empty tables, the flight monitors suddenly started working again to attract new customers.

Creating worry in the customers’ minds would certainly seem to be effective – perhaps more effective than simply deliberately uncomfortable seating, which we’ve come across a number of times before. But is it really a sensible tactic? Won’t those customers, if they use the airport again, consciously avoid “that café where we nearly missed out flight last time because they turned the monitors off”? Has it occurred to the café operators that, perhaps, their customers value sitting down to ‘nurse’ their coffees as part of the coffee-drinking experience?

Härén doesn’t comment on this ‘contempt for the customer’ issue directly, but he does go on to suggest more positive ways of addressing the ‘problem’:

Formulating a question in different ways can help you look at a problem from different angles. In the case above, for example, you can find new angles by putting the question in another way: How can we sell more? So, instead of finding solutions to the problem of getting people to vacate the tables more quickly, you can also come up with solutions such as set up a take-away stand so that people can have a snack or drink by the departure gates, or sell picnic bags that passengers can take onto the planes with them and so on.

Are there other ‘built environment’ examples of deliberately creating worry to force certain behaviour onto users? What about product design?

Of course, much pharmaceutical (and anti-virus software) marketing and government security/crime propaganda through the ages has taken this line (it’s almost expected), but physical examples seem rarer.

Key issue

SonyEricsson W880i

Is this simply poor design or a deliberate feature? A friend tells me of his irritation with his Sony Ericsson W880i’s ‘internet’ key, which is positioned such that it frequently gets pressed accidentally when pressing the buttons above and below it – “three or four times a day”, he says – and, to avoid incurring internet charges, needs to be immediately cancelled.

Clearly any device with many functions and small keys is always going to have some issues with accidental key-presses, but when a single accidental key-press can actually cost the user money and the user not necessarily notice it straight away, this would seem to be a bad choice of layout. Is the ‘internet-via-a-single-key-press’ such a valuable feature that replacing it with, say, a process involving two presses (e.g. a confirmation in addition to the original press) would inconvenience users more?

It seems perhaps unlikely that this is an intentional architecture of control to increase revenue for the network operators by causing accidental connections, but the fact that my friend suggested this – straight off – as the reason for the design, demonstrates how, as users of technology, we’re increasingly aware and suspicious of architectures of control in the products and systems around us, even if we don’t have a full grasp of the concept in a wider context.