Paris Needs A Bike Rental Redesign

As Bruce Mau said, “For most of us, design is invisible…until it fails.”

Mr. Mau was spot on with this statement and it is exactly the experience I had checking out a bike in Paris, France. The process was rife with usability gaps making me aware of the system’s design.

Problem: A difficult check-out process discourages use.

Solution: Create two entry paths into system for repeat and first time users.

On one early Parisian morning before my family had awaken, I left our hotel and approached a bike station. The kiosk was inviting and after first reviewing the display screen and then the input device, I started punching buttons. I selected my language (British) and then started the process of checking out a bicycle.

Row of rental bikes in Paris

The verification and selection process essential is broken down into two phases which was never communicated to me. I’ll start with the first.

Phase One:

  1. Activate screen
  2. Indicate length of rental pass: one day or one week
  3. Chose payment method
  4. Swipe card
  5. Enter card PIN
  6. Card confirmation
  7. Receive receipt of day pass purchase and pass number.
  8. End session.

Now I should have been on top of this, but during the first phase, I swiped my card and made my first mistake. I was focused on the main screen to provide feedback on my card status. What I missed was that the second screen – located at waist height – was waiting for me to enter my PIN number. Since I didn’t see this prompt, the credit card verification process failed and my card was declined.

I had to re-initiate the process with another card thinking my funds had run dry. I finally realized my error and looked down. I felt a bit foolish, but completed the task. The kiosk printed out a receipt and thanked me for the business. Wait, how do I get the bike? Was I going to be charged for a bike that I didn’t have? I was NOT feeling secure in this transaction (a key usability principle of all digital task flows).

I started the process again, unknowingly starting phase two.

Phase Two:

  1. Activate screen.
  2. Enter in the day pass number.
  3. Receive confirmation that the account is active.
  4. Indicate that you do not need help or want to check the status of your account. Instead, select the equivalent of “rent a bike”.
  5. Enter the bike number you wish to rent.
  6. Bike position is now primed for you to remove the bike (maybe it stays that way for ten minutes?).
  7. The screen indicates that the process is now complete and “signs off” returning to the home screen.
  8. Walk to bike position, press button and remove bike from the station.

At the point where I was prompted to chose a bike number, I left the kiosk to go inspect the bikes. I wanted one that was clean and had inflated tires. Of course, during this time someone could have come in and started their own checkout. When I returned to the kiosk with my memorized bike number, the screen had timed out…

Obviously the system should have prompted the user to chose a suitable bike before initiating the checkout process. OK, let’s start this again…

After going through the necessary steps again and getting to the seventh step, I notice that the prompt is NOT asking me to choose from all the bikes available, but from two of the approximately twenty bikes available at this location.Two rental bikes

I walk out to inspect which of the two is in the best condition and upon my return find the screen has timed out again. This was now officially frustrating…!

This was a longer process than I had anticipated. I was being required to learn the system through trial and error. If this was a website, I would have moved on to another task by now. My time for a ride around the city in the early morning light was being eaten up simply trying to figure out how to checkout a bike- the purpose of the program.

The point of this post is to show how interfaces in the real world are similar to online or mobile ones. If it’s poorly executed, we are aware of the flaws and our perception of the whole business proposition is negatively affected. Each application must be designed with the end-user in mind. Usability design practices must be observed to develop tasks flows that are intuitive and consistent.

My solution for this problem would be to have two entry methods in to the system. The first is for newbies who are being acquainted with the system and require greater guidance. The second is for repeat users who are on the fast track. If this simple solution were instituted, it might encourage a larger population to use the bikes. I know I’m not the first tourist to be frustrated by this process.

A communal bike system is an excellent resource and should be a model for all urban areas. However, this execution failed to live up to the promise. It felt like the processing requirements of each technical system (identify verification, payment transaction, time/place stamping, etc.) were poorly integrated.

Ultimately, I had a very enjoyable bike ride. I experienced Paris at a human pace while getting exercise and using no petroleum. I will use the system again, but next time, I’ll know how to work with its eccentricities to get to my ride faster. Fortunately for government, there doesn’t exist a competing rental program.

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