Tech gone bad – travel card kludgism

This article contains two main branches. First I’m going to talk about
the misjudgments somebody made in the design of a Finnish traveling card,
and in the latter part I’m ranting about tech in general, but mobiles
and new services in specific.

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious when something has been designed badly, or
in a user-hostile way. I was renewing the trips in my electronic travel
card. To my surprise, there were a couple of things:
– I could only select 22 or 44 trips
– the trips would have to be consumed in 59 days (by 9.8.2009)

The back limit to my trips was that the card would receive some kind
of update (a product code update). So what? It’s not my problem!
It’s good to make people informed of what is happening, but that
a product code update should affect the way I use my trips – that’s
unacceptable. We should be riding the technology, not be pushed by

It’s funny that I am affected so much as a consumer by the apparently
kludgy choices somebody made during the design of the card. Did the team
think about people’s true needs? Like flexibility and the freedom to travel
when appropiate. I don’t think the bits are going sour – they last practically
forever. So why the 2 month time limit? I’ve no idea at all.

Why I’m writing about this is not that it would shade the sun and
shatter Earth. It’s because this is pure abuse of technology. Tech is not
meant to limit people’s freedom of movement and their choices. It’s
supposed to do the total opposite: liberate!

We could have the liberty to do trips and pay by the kilometer. Or, if there’s
a campaign, take advantage of it. Whatever. But not like this: you’re
given 2 options, and forced to use your trips in due time – or else you
lose direct money.

It may be that the inflexibility of the electronic card is actually inherited
from the underlying system. When I go to the travel agency selling these things,
I can’t but notice how akward all the filing folders and papers seem. They have
tons of tables about the cost of specific trips. Based on location, length,
age group, and who knows what other factors, the whole pictures become
unnecessarily complex.

I think specific travel cards will perish some day. Because simply there’s
no idea at all to make people carry tens of different cards. Ok, currently
they are a splendid way of branding something, and perhaps we really
don’t yet have means to make universal electronic payments, thus we’re
stuck with these cards. Cellphones are one candidate to take the place of
cards. They do have some problems though: one is the possible lack of
power. If the battery is dead, and you’re supposed to beam up some kredito
to the bus, how are you going to do it?

What happens when traveling is difficult? Of course in a bigger picture the
traveling has gotten a lot easier during the centuries, but we’re still
quite far from the optimal. Because every country, region and even bigger
cities have a proprietary, customized traveling card system! Why couldn’t
we parametrize traveling universally, and start doing it using a single
system? Just like TCP/IP protocols are the backbone of the whole
communications revolution, I think traveling could also have much simplified
and unified structure.

The design would have to encompass a lot of questions. First a survey of
all the major travel systems; what exists? Thinking through the user’s
point of view (what is it we are after: easy, affordable, sure travels)
and of course the implementor’s side.

Many travel agency offices seem to be a collection of quite a pile of paper, strange
obsolete stamping machines, and other oddities. In a world, very old-fashioned.
I can’t imagine any reason why this kind of paper, scissors, and ink combination
would beat information technology. What I mean by that is that putting the
information into chips, and effectively provisioning the bits in what ever places
necessary would be an improvement over the current system.

Just recently I waited 15 minutes at such an office. 11 people were buying tickets
before me. What was my need? To renew 22 trips into my electronic card. So I’d
need about couple of kilobytes of data on the card. For that I really did wait
one quarter of an hour. There was nothing special in my service request that would have
required an officer. It was completely routine case. Some people had left from the
queue, not persistent enough to wait. That was lost business opportunnity to the
travel company.

But let me put everything in perspective. This is a small manifesto of my
future society, what comes to the technical side (the dark social side
and bombing manifestos are left for further writings ;).

First of all, tech will evolve in “obvious” and non-obvious ways. The obvious
is increase of network speed, decline in latency, increase in memory capacity,
processor speed; then there are industrial design issues, which make computers
and gadgets look damn hot.

Non-obvious change aka the interesting stuff

But one of the most important factor is usability and sense. There’s still
so much plain dumb technology;
literally tables of data are poured on the users lap, and he feels flooded,
frustrated and angry. Apple is doing a good job in leading into the
right direction; they have time and patience to do the details.

Learning and changing

When you
invent something, it’s only the 10% of the whole thing. You then have to
make people change their habits. To learn to think in your way. I’m ranting all day about Google Maps, how great it is
in my mobile. Still I think maybe one person has taken it into use from my
ranting. It’s because I haven’t been effective as a spokesperson!

There’s always some friction in learning. In mobile world, there are various
methods which vary by manufacturer. Nokia is putting up the Ovi portal right now.
Apple already has their very successful iStore. I’ve tried Ovi quickly – but
I loved, because the application installation from there was a
real treat. No fuzz, always working. And the apps were free (ok, we’re in heaven
now). The searching, downloading, installation, configuration and troubleshooting
are all steps that take away users. Some turn back, some continue the journey.
But I think that these problems can be solved. It’s a matter of investigating
the best practises, and really thinking
the whole scenario from the end user’s point of view.

Amen. Be not afraid. Things settle, always 🙂

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