Underground user experience fail

This is break from my regular programming. Sort of. I received a strange phone call the other day that brought interface design choices to life for me in a very real way. And I wanted to share it with you.


A new toll tunnel recently opened on the west side of the Paris region. It’s called the A86 Duplex. Duplex because…it has three orifices. Anyway. I use it frequently when I go to the airport. Cuts down on drive time. But the other day something went horribly wrong…

When the tunnel first opened only part of it was operational, the “plex” that I use. I pay the tunnel toll with a French freeway fastpass. The fastpass works on all freeways across the country the same way: You go through a special lane at the tollbooth when you enter the freeway and when you exit. I don’t keep the fastpass glued on my windshield because A) the adhesive melts in the sun and B) I don’t want someone to steal it. I just whip it out at the tollbooths and let it sleep in the glove compartment the rest of the time.

The tunnel is different. It only reads the fastpass when you enter the tunnel. They say this is to prevent people rear-ended each other at the exit tollbooth. And it wasn’t a problem when only plex of the tunnel was operational. But a month or so ago they opened the other plex.

The third orifice conundrum

The other day I used the tunnel to go to the airport. In I drove. Beep. Dark. Drive, drive, drive. Exit. Daylight. End of story.

Not quite. Yesterday, I get a phone call from the tunnel operator asking where I exited on that day I went to the airport. When I told her, she began chewing me out in a polite way. She explained that the fastpass must to glued to the inside of my windshield and be visible. But there’s no exit lane I told her. True, she said, but we still read the fastpass (telepathy?). You’re going to have to pay the full toll.

I’d had a hell of a week and was feeling a bit punch drunk. I stopped her in her tracks and tried to explain that what we had here was an inconsistent interface design and that I’d bet money that wasn’t going to be the only person to make this mistake. The tunnel is an exception. No other portion of freeway in France operates this way. Lots of people leave their fastpasses in the glove compartment. Users are creatures of habit.

My comments fell on deaf ears. She explained that there was a sign on the wall near the exit saying that I must be “muni” with my fastpass to exit the tunnel. I’d seen the sign. I said that the verb “munir” means to be equipped, and that I was. Munir is too vague. If you want someone to do something specific you have to be clear. You have to stay “STICK FASTPASS ON WINDSHIELD”.

When I asked for a refund, she said I’d have to call customer service. Could you transfer me? No (I guess she just gets to chew people out). I feel bad for her because I’m sure she’s not finished making phone calls.

Poor naming. Inconsistent interface design. Unclear instructions. Ineffective customer interaction. Guess these aren’t just online problems.


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