MBTA’s Charlie Card Interface

Ashley McKee

July 13th, 2007

I was heading to Boston yesterday to watch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and I ended up taking the subway to avoid traffic and parking issues. The subway is part of the MBTA, or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority…aka the T. I hadn’t taken the T in a little over a year and a noticed a big change right away.

Previously, to ride the T you needed special tokens, and you bought the tokens from a booth manned by an actual person. When I showed up yesterday at the station, I noticed the booth was boarded up and there were 6 new machines strewn about the building. I missed the memo about the new Charlie Card that is now used instead of tokens (shows how much I go into Boston.) The Charlie Card is a smart card used for automated fare collection, and you can reuse it by adding more money to it. (Just to give this post a little context, the Charlie Card is named after the man in The MTA Song, named Charlie, who can’t pay his way out of the subway and spends the rest of his life beneath the streets of Boston.)

Without knowing any of this, I approached one of the new machines and was immediately taken aback. There was so much going on, I didn’t know where to look.

Charlie Card Interface

After scanning the interface for a few moments, I finally found where you can insert your dollar bills. I figured it would be similar to a vending machine or ATM, and tried inserting my money. Nothing happened. I moved to a different machine and did the same thing. Nothing happened. Eventually I walked over to where I noticed an MBTA employee teaching a couple how to use the machine. Turns out you had to touch the upper-right hand corner of the screen before anything happened. With this new knowledge I returned to my previous machine and completed my transaction after a few more hassles.

What do you think of this interface? Do you think it’s counter-intuitive? Do you think the designers tried to cram too much functionality into one interface? If the main screen contained a large button that said “START HERE,” my problem might have been avoided.

9 Responses to “MBTA’s Charlie Card Interface”

  1. Compete on Usability Says:

    The Charlie Card: Brazil in Boston…

    The Charlie Card is Boston’s electronic ticketing system for public transportation. I agree with Ashley McKee’s recent post about the limitations of the ticket machine UI. But her gentle criticism doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the old subway syst…

  2. Greg Says:

    I also had problems with this new system when I went back to visit my family a few months ago. I got past the first screen, but got stuck trying to buy a plain old single fare. Eventually, I pulled a T employee over who did it for me.

    What really bugs me is that this is not a new problem. I’ve used many automated ticketing systems, and never got stuck like I did here. And some of those other systems were not even in English! I think the real problem with this interface is that what’s presented didn’t match what I expected to see. There were no visual cues that matched with “buy a ticket” anywhere, and the things I did see seemed totally foreign. Even the physical design of this system is horrible. It says ‘ticket’ in 3 different places, and all the arrows indicate whoever designed this was really confused as well.

    This system doesn’t appear to do any more than any other automated ticket system. It just seems like the designers didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish, and there is nothing to tie the design as a system together. As a result, it ends up looking like the kitchen sink

  3. julian Says:

    This is just one of many new digital touchscreen interfaces that forgets that it exists in the context of a larger physical world. All of the interaction design happened for the touchscreen interface–the outside ATM-like device doesn’t “do” anything or “understand” anything unless directed to by the touchscreen.

    You should be able to just insert money and have the option of then inserting a ticket to add money, or simply print a new ticket.

    Having two slots for tickets and extraneous labels just adds to the confusion. And why is the coin slot so far away from the bill slot?

  4. Matthijs Rouw Says:

    I reckon the arrows that point at all the machine’s parts fight over attention and receive more than the main actual information in-and-output source; the touch screen .. If a part is not important to the user (yet), it should not draw attention ..

    They would’ve been better off not putting all the arrows on the machines and replacing them by lights that are off by default .. As long as there’s some process required to do something, you’d have to take the user by the hand along each step .. if the touch-screen would have initially said/blinked/screamed to touch it as the first step, they could have later on shown a picture of the machine itself with encircled parts you’d need to use next .. together with blinking lights near the actual parts while they become available to the user, the process would be way easier ..

    The ‘danger’ with these machines also is that experienced users (those that regularly buy the same ticket) act and think faster than the pre-programmed step-by-step process .. In the Netherlands, the old train ticket machines with buttons seemed hard to use but with a little more information on the outside they were better than the slowly reacting touch-screen versions we have now .. With the old machines with real buttons that lit up I could choose my ticket within 5 seconds if I knew the postal code of the station i was travelling to (there was a list of all stations available)!

  5. Eric Meyer Says:

    This is a worldwide problem, sadly (though this means Boston isn’t especially egregious in this regard, so score one for Beantown, I guess). I have similar problems in Chicago, for example, and I’ve already used their machines a few times in the past. Ditto London. As more systems move to full automation, it sure would be nice if some usability consulting firm could tackle the problem. Anybody know one we could bug to do it?

  6. Steven Hauser Says:

    The RFID card is a system of bad usability, not just a single machine interface gone bad.

    The Metro Transit of Minneapolis – St Paul has a similar disaster that is probably worse:

    http://www.tc.umn.edu/~hause011/article/Bus_ride8.html (an article about RFID usabilty and news articles
    documenting the disaster)

  7. Jeff Bridgforth Says:

    Could you please publish instructions on how to use the “T” automated machine for those of us coming to the UIE conference in November? Okay I’m half kidding :). I

    tried using the machines at the airport 2 years ago when I attended UI10. I think that my friend and I bought tickets but they did not work on the lines in Cambridge and the inner city. It was frustrating because the machine did little to help a new visitor to Boston buy the correct ticket. It was a confusing interface that had too much going on. I hope that in the future they make this a lot more user friendly.

  8. C.M. Says:

    The transition over to the Charlie system was promoted some time back. I recently started working in Boston and am still trying to figure out how to get a Charlie Card verses the Charlie Ticket. The difference works out to 30 cents per ride. The machines are configured to dispense the more expensive cards, no 10 ride tickets, no charlie cards that I can see and manned booths are a thing of the past.

  9. johnw Says:

    Obtaining a Charlie Card for the out-of-towner:
    You may order pre-loaded Charlie Cards, by online tranaction, at the MBTA Website using a credit card.
    No shipping charge, just the face value charge

    Go to:

    and click “buy online” link
    location of on-page link button varies: far right, or bottom of page.
    purchase site: http://commerce.mbta.com/

    You will have to “buy” the pass, or passes, then “establish” an account (destination email required), but it does work.

    I tto, had done the endlessly repeated query, “Do you have any Charlie Cards, sir” at Oak Grove, North Station and South Station until Idecided to try the online purchase route.
    I had a lone personal Charlie Card from January-June 2007, then I tried the online purchase–all is happy.

    Good luck.

    Either a $5 denomination, or a $10 denomintion are available.
    The card (or cards) get mailed to your home (credit card billing) address.
    A Wednesday, end-of-day order resulted in a pair of $5 cards in my mailbox in NH by Friday PM.

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