Clipper, the Caltrain enemy

If you live in the Bay area and often commute to San Francisco, Caltrain is probably your best friend, but the friend has a powerful enemy, the Clipper card! Designed as a "sophisticated" solution that lets you pay for the train without actually buying a ticket, Clipper has a way of making each trip a ginormous pain. Do you agree?

The system is supposed to be simple - you tag your card to a reader and "bam!", you paid. Whenever you are low on funds, the card auto-reloads from you credit card. Supposed to be simple, convenient, easy to use and good for everyone. But it is not.

Here is how it works in real life. First, I get to tap my card at the station that I leave. Then, during the train ride a controller passes by and scans my card once again, to make sure I have in fact paid. Finally, at the destination, I also have to "tag off", by scanning my card at the reader. One simple card now required 3 interactions with the system, just as many as a paper ticket would. Even then, I wouldn’t complain if it wasn’t for this last step.

This last step is just a mystery to me. Whenever I get off the train, in San Francisco or Mountain View, I am required to tap the card once again - off the train, on the platform. As a user, if I forget to tap this card every other time and as a result, I get charged two one-way tickets, instead of the round trip.

The system expects me to remember to tap, because they (the engineers) needed a way to check where and when I get off the train. That’s fantastic, but this step doesn’t fit in my normal behavior, it doesn’t fit in my historical or expected train usage patterns. It baffles me as to why I should be tagging off; there is no logic to it, and from the user point of view, there is no need.

I am sure there are edge cases, which I am not thinking about, cases that the train system engineers needed to solve. But, that is not my problem, that’s an engineering problem. As a user, I take the train not for the pleasure of riding a train, but because I have somewhere to go. When I get off the train at the destination, my mind is not concerned with the exercise of travel, my mind is occupied by my thoughts on upcoming meetings, Scoutzie, and sometimes pictures of cats. If there was a way to teleport I would, but until then, I have to take the train.

I know I am not the only person with this problem. I have talked to friend who all overpaid for the Caltrain time and time again. One of them is even developing an iOS app, which would remind the riders to tap-off at their destination.

As a developer and engineer, I find it fun that someone is building an app to solve our problem, but as a user, I am simply upset with the engineers who designed Clipper card in the first place. I understand there business concerns, there are idiot-boss-concerns, and a lot of other problem that might have prevented them from doing a better job. But, guess what, that is not my problem. As a user in 2012 I want a better a system and I expect nothing less.

The Enginering Evil At Large

Clipper isn’t the only example of badly engineered products and systems. Banks, cell phone companies, insurance providers, the government ... these any many more have outdate systems and processes that need fixing, serious fixing. Somehow, in the past, large companies have been allowed to build sucky products. Monopolies didn’t care if it took you hours to use their systems, they just wanted your money.

The world has changed, become more connected, development costs have dropped and the number of talented young people is growing. It pains me to see systems that are not engineered for user; I want better. Don’t you?

p.s. You can also participate in the discussion on Hacker News.