User Experience Should Always Be Paramount

by francine Hardaway on October 26, 2010

The confusing machine at the gate

There’s no life situation in which user experience is not paramount. And it is the user who defines the experience, not the engineer. As a particularly low-tech example, take the parking lot I parked in at lunch.

For four decades, this parking lot has been free. It’s in front of a popular Phoenix luxury shopping mall, Biltmore Fashion Park. Last year, for some ungodly reason, the mall ownership decided it had to begin charging for parking in the street front lot, perhaps to keep the people out who just hang out in the Paradise Bakery or the Mojo Yogurt and don’t shop in the fancy-pants stores.

So they put in a gate, and a kiosk, and a system by which when you enter the lot you have to take a yellow token and have it validated for two free hours of parking  by the store or restaurant you visit .

Now I’m no stranger to parking garages, and this is a common practice. But you can make it easy for the user, or you can make it deadly. The best garage I’ve experienced lately is in San Francisco, near Moscone Center. You take a ticket, and you pay before you return to your car. There are banks of payment kiosks, all yellow,  showing you where to pay and telling you how to pay.  They are hard to miss, or misperceive.

In theory, it’s the same system as the little yellow tokens at Biltmore Fasion Park. Except you must have the little yellow token validated by the merchant, and people aren’t used to carrying around little yellow tokens. They ARE used to carrying around parking tickets to have them validated. It will take time for the mall, which caters to winter visitors, tourists, and older locals, to get used to this drill. Most people try desperately to avoid it.

To complicate things further, in order to install the gate in the lot at Biltmore, the property management had to change the traffic patterns dramatically, so there is only one way to get out of the lot. The directions are not clearly marked. Non-intuitive one way traffic arrows on the pavement lead to dead ends.  As a result, while I was there  three or four cars were circling the lot looking for the one road to the exit, and another three or four were lined up at the exit trying to figure out the system with the little yellow token.  At lunch time, it was a real jam, and everyone kept ringing the bell for the attendant.

I asked the attendant whether she was getting enough user feedback to advise her superiors to make changes in the system to make it more user friendly and friction free. She looked at me as though I were a child: “there’s nothing wrong with the system, it’s just that people don’t read the signs.” Right. That’s like the engineer saying “Read the F**king Manual” about a piece of  software. It ain’t gonna happen, and besides, WE are the customer. We are paying. We deserve at least a decent customer experience.

I didn’t bother going into it with her further.  Clearly, although the Apple store is in this mall, she had never been there.  She didn’t understand that it is possible to produce intuitive system in which manuals and signs are not needed, because the system or design plays off common knowledge or the user’s previous experience, and there is a shared understanding. Think iPad.

Other things that could be fixed:

The single sign showing the exit is posted under a tree, and is very difficult to find.

A kiosk outside the lot confuses people about whether to pay there, or in their cars at the exit.

The design of the entire operation is not friendly.

The attendant, who is naturally annoyed at having to run out repeatedly from elsewhere in the center, always betrays her annoyance and clearly thinks the confusion in the customer’s shortcoming.

At some point, Biltmore Fashion Park will examine its traffic and decide its sales are off. Have them call me when that happens. And give that attendant some uppers in the mean time.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Shauna Castorena October 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Fantastic post! I have avoided Biltmore in the past if I could help it (mostly because of the midday congestion). It always seemed that they were doing their best for force Valet parking (and the image it carries) as the easiest option, unless you wanted to lose your car in the garage.

hardaway October 26, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I felt so sorry for that poor attendant, but she just didn’t understand thatrnit could have been otherwise.

Ian McGee October 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Surely you’re not advocating proper design in order to make the attendant redundant… ;-) I had a similar experience getting out of a hotel parking garage in San Jose — despite proof of room, he was unable to let me out without a ticket without multiple trips to a mysterious location across the garage.

hardaway October 26, 2010 at 4:29 pm

And no one realizes how much parking experiences influence where people hang out.rnrnFrancine Hardaway, PH.drn@hardawayrn816.WRITTENrnrnHttp://

Anonymous October 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Before I couldn’t even afford to shop there. Now I can’t even afford to park there. Talk about class seperation. Not that I espouse it but a few good vandals should be the equalizer needed. With Halloween comoing up those CA owners will question their decision from afar.

hardaway October 29, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I wish I didn’t think that was so funny, but it does.

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