Vending machine proxy/broker

Right after reading Dan Hill's recent post about transport fare system this morning, I had to bring a friend to a tram stop here in Geneva and I had an interesting discussion with what I would call the local "vending machine proxy/broker". Transport ticket machines in Geneva are actually a bit complex: the interface is a pain (with buttons without any uses, two little screens, two slots to swipe a care), the pricing is also difficult to understand and to choose (for instance the zoning is not very well described and reflected in the interface). Plus: the ticket does not give back change (it gives you a sort of ticket that you can use to claim your money back at counters). We discussed that example during the LIFT08 workshop about design failures, talking how this situation leads to frustration and waste of time or money since lots of people choose to avoid paying.

That said, the most interesting phenomenon is the presence in some key tram/bus spots of "proxy ladies" who help people to buy a ticket. They generally take your change, ask you where you'd like to go and use their transport card to get the ticket. The thing is that when you buy a "cartabonus" card for X transport then you can get one free (as that lady explained me). They can then make a few amount of money using that trick and help angry or clueless Geneva visitors.

Vending machine broker

What's interesting here is that the lady is NOT an agent from the transport company. She's a freelance proxy to the machine, or "broker" with customers. The whole system itself generated this opportunity to make a little amount of money (incentive for the broker) AND help customers who definitely need a hand.

Vending machine broker

Why do I blog this? following closely what happen with "urban interface", I find this example fascinating, especially when you think about it was not planned by the machine designers, how it was a by-product of the bad design+pricing system. To me, that's a very important example to be understood if one wants to design relevant "urban computing" applications. The presence of a human helper is tremendously interesting here. Although this only happens in crowded transport spots (like the railway station), there are lessons to draw here about "urban interface" in contemporary cities.

Spending time with that lady is fantastic, especially if you consider that she speaks a sort of mix of french and portuguese AND she still manage to help people finding the right ticket to go to a specific zone. Furthermore, the whole transactions between some customers and the "proxy lady" are a very rich terrain to investigate people's mental representation of the city and how they can be translated into an interface (or a need to have a human face to help them!). Through a discussion with the customer, the proxy lady seems to help him/her transferring the representation of the wanted location (its image-ability) in the zoned map printed on the vending machine, and thus, to choose the right button to buy the correct ticket.