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.

Stuff you must read today (Fri, 3 Jan 2014) – The Q&A Edition

Feel-good story of the day

Feel Good, Inc

In the spirit of not drinking and driving/riding, I took public transport to a Christmas party last Fri evening.

While going down the escalator toward the train platform at Serangoon MRT station, I took out my phone to reply to a message that had just come in.

Just as I reached the platform, I heard a brusque and brutish voice behind me shout, “Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

I was all ready to whip around and be like, “What the f-awrawrawrawrawrawr do you want, man?”

I was angrily wondering whose toes I had stepped on to get him all riled up like that. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t (knowingly) offended anyone at the station.

I turned around only to face a young man (about 16 or 17 years old), who came up to me and said, “You dropped your money.”

Words cannot describe how shocked I was.

For one, I’m quite a careful person, and I seldom make mistakes like that. Apparently, the money had fallen out of my pocket while I was taking out my phone, and I had walked on toward the train platform like an oblivious boss.

(In other news, I need a money clip, but this is in no way encouraging anyone to get me one.)

For another, I hadn’t expected this.

(Before I left the house, I grabbed all the cash that was in my wallet and stuffed it into my pocket. I didn’t count how much I’d brought out, but after some calculations on hindsight, I realised I had brought $98 out. I don’t usually bring out so much cash because I prefer to pay by card, but I knew I was going to be taking quite a lot of public transport that evening.)

I’d brought quite a bit of cash out with me and I hadn’t expected this act of goodwill; I’d assumed that I was the only altruistic person alive and Singaporeans were all evil and would’ve just taken the money they’d found.

So I stood there staring at him for about two seconds like a stunned mullet before I blurted out, “Wow. Thank you so much.”

And grabbed the cash from him. As I fumbled to rearrange the notes and put them back in my pocket, I noticed something amiss – a missing blue-coloured note.

That’s it, lah, I thought, still assuming that Singaporeans were untrustworthy bastards. The $50 note is gone.

As I paced around to check if the note was anywhere on the ground, the train chose to arrive at that opportune moment.

Between searching for the cash and not wanting to miss my ride (because I was late), I decided to abandon all hope and enter the train.

And just then, this old lady in an orange shirt, came up to me, smiling, and handed me the $50 note.

I think my jaw must have dropped open right then, but I recovered, thanked her hastily, and ran into the awaiting train.

I always thought stuff like that only happens in the movies, but I guess I was proven wrong that day.

And I’m glad I was proven wrong about Singaporeans – there still is some good and graciousness left on this island.

I hope this story has touched you one way or another, so if your faith in Singaporeans has been renewed as well, please pay this good deed forward in any way you can.

On my part, I’m going to keep on being altruistic. I’m also going to take part in the Letters Under Umbrellas project and leave a letter at Serangoon MRT station to encourage more people to keep on doing good deeds.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and see you back here on Wed!