Design and technology in the library


After quite a few years of not having visited a public library, I popped by one earlier today to borrow a book.

The process of finding the text was quite painless; the NLB catalogue told me the book was located at a certain shelf on a certain floor.

After picking out the book, I proceeded to the borrowing station.

Initially, I was quite miffed as there was only one terminal.

And it was being hogged by an aunty who wanted to borrow 2000 books, but didn’t know how to work the machine.

I sighed and resigned myself to a long wait – until I saw the sign in the picture above.

I duly downloaded the app, logged into my account and scanned the barcode on the inside cover of the book.

Voila! Book borrowed in less than a minute, and I was quickly on my way to my next destination.

Kudos to the National Library Board, Singapore, for its brilliant use of design and technology.

Stuff you must read today (Sat, 4 Mar 2017) – The Leadership and Management Edition

User error or system flaw?

Lately, I’ve been seeing these signs at the exit doors of buses:

A transcription of the copy in case you can’t see the image:

“Tap Out For Better Services

You make a difference when you tap out with your travel card (including concession card/pass holders)! How?

By tapping out, you provide more accurate data about bus trips and crowding. That helps us to plan better bus services.

Make a difference!
Tap out now!”

It’s an attempt at a nudge to get concession card users to “tap out” i.e. to tap their travel passes on the card reader at exit doors of buses before alighting.

(By the way , “tap out”, in this context, is a non-standard use of the term #notsayiwanttosay)

Why do I say it’s an attempt at a nudge?

Singapore has been using proximity/contactless cards for its public transport since 2001.

Most commuters have learnt to tap their stored-value cards on the entry reader when they board, and to tap the same card on the exit reader when alighting.

There is incentive to comply.

The maximum fare, calculated from when they board to the bus’ terminal destination, is deducted upon boarding.

If the journey ends before reaching the bus terminus, the card is tapped on the exit reader to obtain a refund of the balance .

To illustrate: A commuter’s journey would cost $1.50, if he boarded at a stop where the maximum fare of $2.00 was deducted, and $0.50 were refunded to him, if he tapped on the exit reader before alighting.

If the latter action were not taken, the sum would be forfeited – though if the commuter so desired, he could make a fare refund claim.

The respective penalty and hassle of the previous two outcomes thus provide a disincentive to non-compliance.

But there is no similar disincentive for concession-card holders – such as senior citizens, students, and national servicemen – who often bypass the exit reader.

This group pays a fixed travel fare, often lower than what adults riders might pay (and rightfully so, because of their relatively limited income as compared to working adults).

Because their fares are fixed, whether or not they tap their cards when alighting has no bearing on fare calculation.

Now that data collection to inform service provision has come into vogue, the behaviour of this group of riders is unproductive for transport planners.

Without knowing where and how many people alight at a certain place or time, it’d be unhelpful for, say, allocating more buses during peak periods or modifying bus routes to better serve commuters.

And that’s where the poster comes in – to remind concession-card holders to “close the loop” on their public transport journeys.

It remains to be seen, though, how much a poster could possibly nudge people to change their behaviour.

As seen from the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme, it takes a certain approach to encourage people to break certain habits, or discourage them from doing what has been easy for them.

To be sure, not tapping before alighting is not exactly user error; it’s been a good 16 years of habituation for concession-card holders because of how the system was designed.

Yet, to bite the bullet now and apply the same “deduct when boarding, return when alighting” approach to concession-card holders may not work.

It’d entail much more churn, in terms of having to deal with multiple fare refund claims before users settle into the desired habit.

That’d take away a lot of time, energy and effort from the core business of data analysis to improve services.

Perhaps a more middle-ground approach here would suffice: word the poster differently to appeal to commuters’ sense of following behaviour norms.

Even then, it depends on the generosity and altruism of the user to follow suit.

Clearly, this is a textbook case study of why planners should pre-empt system flaws and design processes with the user in mind.

That is: make usage friendly and intuitive, while understanding users’ idiosyncrasies and catering for such quirks.

This creates systems with longer-term sustainability and adaptability to evolve, along with the times, to meet future needs.