The Charlie Card is Boston's electronic ticketing system for public transportation. I agree with Ashley McKee's recent post about the limitations of the ticket machine UI. But her gentle criticism doesn't go nearly far enough.
In the old subway system, you bought tokens. Each token cost the same (say, $1.25), and each entitled you to one ride on the train. It's an easy model that you don't have to think about. The new systems allow you to store any amount of value on the Charlie Cards -- a feature that layers on much mental gymnastics:
- I forget how much money I have on my card right now. I have to find a machine to check.
- How much is the fare again?
- So, if I do the subtraction, do I have enough for tonight / this weekend / this week?
- No? Then how much do I have to add?
It would speed usage and reduce the mental burden if the ticket machines simply asked you how many subway trips you wanted to store, and then told you the price. For buses and commuter rail, where price depends on the length of the trip, just ask the route and the number of trips, and show how much money is required. The Charlie Card as a rapid-transit debit system is seriously flawed because it lacks visibility, requires so much human computation, and is so unintuitive for new riders.
Nevertheless, this more complicated model would still be doable for most folks, if the system supporting it were clearer. Instead, everything from where the machines are placed in the stations, to the counterintuitive fare structure, creates a nightmare of bad usability. Beyond the UI of the ticket machines, many other factors contribute to a very poor user experience.
Whenever I've had to use the Green Line before Red Sox games, the stations at either end of the line teem with chaotic swarms of travelers unused to the new system. People are forced to have T employees help them through the process one at a time. There's simply no way to figure it out oneself. At some rush-hour stations, queues of unhappy riders shuffling from point to point create a farcical bureaucratic dystopia, like something out of the movie Brazil.
The system compares very poorly to the much older, much easier system in Washington DC. It's so bad that I've cynically begun to think it was built unintuitively on purpose, to preserve or expand the T workforce. At least one T worker agrees with me.
(Edit: now with Alertbox-style bolding to make this post more scannable.)