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Parking Woes: When automation breaks down

An experience my friend and I had in a parking garage last night highlighted the importance of consideration to user experience when technology is introduced, and how small details can quite often make all the difference.

Upon entry to a parking garage, we were greeted by the gate and an automated payment machine that asked for a credit card, or offered a ticket. We opted for credit card and fed one into the machine. The gate opened. Easy. Nothing unusual here.

Later in the evening, we returned to the parking garage to pick up our vehicles. We naturally went back to the exit we had entered from, but were stopped. The parking attendant insisted we turn around, saying we needed to leave from another exit in the opposite direction. We complied. As we approached the next intersection, the signage offered exits both to the left or right, depending on the street we preferred, but first, there was another payment machine. It asked us to feed it either our parking ticket or credit card. We fed it the credit card again, were provided a receipt, and opted to go left. Wow, isn’t technology a convenient thing, we mused.

When we arrived at the exit we had selected, we were greeted by another gate and payment machine asking for a credit card or ticket. We inserted the credit card again. Error. Again, perhaps the card needed to be in a different orientation. Error. Try the receipt. Error, unreadable. Another orientation? Error, unreadable. Perhaps the credit card again. Error. Let’s call the attendant.

We were then instructed to drive to the “Church Street entrance” for assistance. Lovely, only we had no indication of where that was. We tried a few turns and eventually located the signage that sported a helpful arrow. At that location, there was another vehicle backing up and turning around. More confusion.

“You should not have paid at the payment machine”, a parking attendant informed us. “The payment machine is only for the Yonge Street gate.” Translation, the machine was only hooked up to activate the gate that allowed individuals to leave via the exit to the right, rather than our selected exit to the left. The system was not synced up to know if someone had paid their balance on their credit card already, contrary to the ticketing system. The attendant asked us to return to the other gate to try again. We suggested he just open the gate we were currently in front of for us, so we could leave. After some discussion, he agreed and activated the gate to open.

As we drove away, it dawned on us. We had just been freed from the original entrance we had come in, which was the same entrance/exit we had tried to exit from in the first place and had been refused access to. Likely, the other vehicle that we had encountered that was turning around had been redirected as we had been in the first place.

All in all, it was sadly not a parking lot technological triumph afterall. On the contrary, it was a parking lot fail. It highlighted the importance of consideration and planning around a customer’s start-to-finish experience, points of interaction with the technology, and the intended outcome – in this case, easy navigation of a parking lot. Because the technology within the parking lot was so selective in its payment mechanism that it only related to one specific exit, it really required the support of an older technology: good old fashioned signage and instructions to explain what actions a customer is meant to carry out and when they should be carried out. It was a little silly for it to take 15 minutes to make a successful exit from an empty parking lot on a late Tuesday night.

Our experience was far too similar to the ever-popular game, “Blocked”, where the objective is to free the special blue block (or in the original version, a car) from the traffic jam. The only differences, our real-life version required more time, and provided far less in-game entertainment and fun.

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