UX Designers: Your Duty Is To Design Self-Service Systems That Are Just Obvious To Use

November 22, 2016 by guest author, Matt Downey


Guest Post: Bryan Crotaz, Silver Curve

I spent 20 recently minutes trying to get out of a car park. With a row of cars behind me queued up hooting. Not the most fun I’ve had lately, and it was the second day in a row it happened.

Let’s explore why.

Bryan Crotaz

Bryan Crotaz

I rented a Zipcar – for the uninitiated, this means I can book a car rental from my phone and be driving away two minutes later. No paperwork, no queueing, 24/7. Can’t say anything bad about Zipcar – I was one of their first London members and I’ve never had anything but great service from them. Their call centre is helpful and prompt to fix things even when it’s my fault. I even reported a broken tail light once and when I returned the car two hours later there was a lovely man in a van waiting with a new light.

However …

Their latest cars in my area are in a car park run by Q-Park. And Q-Park’s barrier machines have some serious design problems. Which by all accounts (ok, one account) are affecting every Zipcar customer using those two cars.

The car comes with a car park season ticket in the glove compartment. Lovely – I just swipe my membership card on the windscreen, the doors open, I lift the keys and season ticket out, bang it on the barrier machine, the barrier lifts and I drive away, right? That would be the case if Q-Park had rented a time machine and read this article before letting their latest monstrosity out of the factory.

I spent 20 minutes trying to work out how to use their darling machine, and did the same a day earlier. When I returned yesterday someone else was stuck in the same position, and the staff who work there say this happens at least three times a day.

Enough waffling, Bryan, on to the design problem

So here’s a question for you, dear reader. You hold in your hand a plastic season ticket card. It’s the size of a credit card, but it has no mag stripe or shiny chip. So therefore it’s contactless, right? We’ve been trained over the last few years how to use contactless cards (RFID, NFC, contactless bank cards etc) – as the London Underground advertised their Oyster cards, they’re slappy-wappy not swipey-wipey (whoever thought that up needs a knighthood).

So you’re looking for somewhere to slap your card when you get to the barrier. Here it is …

So here’s the question

Where do you slap your card?

Don’t read on – take a look at the photo up top, and decide where you’d put the card.

Let’s look at the visual cues

  1. Wireless icon on the pad top right with a hand symbol
  2. 4 lights above the pad just like a contactless payment machine
  3. The words Tap and Go above it
  4. The text below it is the clincher: Tap contactless card above or insert below

Well then it’s easy, right? Slap it on the grey pad top right?


I had to call the Q-Park support (nice piece of UX: a button with a phone symbol). After much to-ing and fro-ing they pulled up the camera feed and told me I was using it wrong. Slap it on the white bit, they said. I looked at the white slot on the left and off-white pad on the right and still assuming I was reading the cues correctly told them their machine wasn’t working. Nope. It was working alright.


You have to slap your card on the white “mouth” under the LCD screen.

No, really, I’ll repeat that for clarity

You have to slap your card on the white “mouth” under the LCD screen.

Here’s the problem:

  1. It’s not flat
  2. It’s not the same shape as the card
  3. It doesn’t have a contactless symbol on it
  4. It has a SLOT in it and looks like a mouth! Clearly it’s for putting things inside, or for getting a printed ticket out. Aha there’s a chute under the slot so clearly it’s the receipt printer
  5. ALL the other visual cues point elsewhere, including the international default symbol for contactless card
  6. There’s actually textual instructions telling you explicitly to do something other than what you need to do

Designers, you have a duty to your users. These days we don’t get training when we use something new. We have to figure it out on the spot. With cars queued up behind getting angry and hooting at us.

This applies to self-service digital signage and kiosk screens of all kinds, whether they have peripheral devices or just an on-screen user experience to get users to what they need to see and read and do.

Your duty is to design a system that is just obvious to use. You shouldn’t really need text at all if everything can be made obvious enough with internationally agreed symbology that we’re all used to seeing and understanding.

Using text is fine though if there’s no other way to communicate the usage to a novice. But make sure that if you follow the instructions to the letter, the thing actually works!


To the poor people in the call centre (I feel for you, getting these calls every day, I really do), when you are told over the intercom that the instructions are incorrect, don’t apologize and say,  “Well, you know for next time.

Tell me you’ve told someone in management to get it sorted.

And actually tell someone in management to get it sorted.

Yes, I do know for next time. But that poor patsy in the car in front who, let’s for argument’s sake say … can’t get out of the car park … doesn’t have the benefit of the training you gave me last time, and I’m still stuck in your concrete maze, hoping against hope that you haven’t installed a Minotaur.

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