The delight of London transport payments

Oct 28, 2017

There’s a lot of bad design around us. Modern consumer technology more often than not makes me go, “ughhhh…”

So when I encounter a truly well designed experience, I now try to take a moment to cherish, remember, and share it. It’s useful to have examples of good design for inspiration, but there’s few of them day to day, and even fewer are truly transformative. I did have such an experience this week in London public transport.

Here’s an entrance to London metro. How do you think you make the payment here?

Previously, the answer was (and in some cases still is) “use the Oyster card.” Which in itself is an improvement over paper tickets. You can just load credit or passes on it, and off you go. Pretty easy. You tap your Oyster on the yellow thing and off you go.

This has a bunch of preconceptions, though. Such as, you have an Oyster card, and you know it has the right ticket or credit loaded on it. The Oyster card is another thing in your wallet next to many other things.

Turns out, for tourists and business travellers these days, there’s a solution that’s better than Oyster. It works perfectly for the situation I had this week: I arrived in London. I was in a hurry. I did not have an Oyster card. I did not want to have an Oyster card or any other thing to think about. I did not care about ticket prices. I wanted a quick, smooth experience.

Here’s what you do in this situation. You use your domestic bank card with contactless payments. You tap it on the yellow thing. A few hundred milliseconds go by, the machine beeps, the gate opens. You enter the metro. You’re done.

That’s it.

There is no step 2.

You really are done. Everything in less than a second. I was truly impressed.

(Well, you have to tap out of the metro when you exit. But it works all the same, you just tap on the yellow thing with your bank card when exiting, and you are done.)

No paper tickets. No Oyster. No queuing or buying something from yet another machine. No waste. No thinking about ticket prices. No nothing at all. Just tap with the card you already have, and that’s it.

What makes it even better is, it’s FAST. When you usually pay with a contactless card, the reading operation is similarly fast but then it communicates with the bank which takes forever. (And by forever, I mean several seconds. Yeah, #firstworldproblems.) When entering the London metro with the contactless payment card, the only time it uses is the reading operation, and there is no apparent communication delay with the bank involved.

If I was a designer who had to work on contactless payment systems, I would be curious about how this is possible, and I would look into it more and expand on the details. (Apparently, London transport agency developed it in-house and will license it to New York City.) As a regular user, I don’t care and am just delighted by the speed.

This is the closest there is to magic in public transport ticketing. I suppose the only thing more magical would be if I did not have to do anything at all. I would just approach the machine and it would do some kind of body reading and let me in automatically without any action on my part.

On second thought, would we really want the additional magic that I just described? An important property of the current contactless payment approach is that I as the end user still maintain ultimate control and agency about when the authorization and transaction happens. I have to actively tap my payment card on the yellow reader to pass through. If there was some magic that just read some body reading, it would charge me simply if I was close to the gate, even if I had no intention to actually make a payment and pass through the gate. So my mental model would be unclear, which is not what you want, and which you especially don’t want around money.

All this is backed by a nice website where I can register my contactless bank card and see my journeys after the fact. There’s no silly country restrictions or any other limitations, but it’s secondary to the core experience of passing through the gates simply with my contactless bank card.

Here’s my challenge to Tallinn city. When can tourists do the same in Tallinn public transport system? Mind you, Tallinn has already done the hard part of rolling out contactless readers on all vehicles. Tallinn has “green card” which is the local equivalent of Oyster. That can all remain working, but in addition to that, I want all tourists to be able to simply walk on to Tallinn buses and tap in with their contactless bank cards, iPhones and Apple Watches with Apple Pay, or any other compatible payment thing, and they’d just get charged the appropriate ticket amount and wouldn’t have to worry about anything else.

Until this happens, Tallinn isn’t truly a digital city, is falling behind, and provides its visitors a sub-par experience as they must look for unnecessary ticket information and think about things they shouldn’t really have to.