or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

How is the DC Metro Like A Library?

   April 15th, 2010

Welcome to the Metro signAnytime you go to a conference, like Computers in Libraries, you learn about all sorts of neat things, hear great ideas, and get excited about taking these ideas home. The trouble (for me, anyway) can be in connecting those exciting ideas to the real world outside of the conference.

In his Experience Design Makeover talk, David Lee King mentioned the idea of "Touch Points" - the times a person comes in contact with an organization's product or services. While riding the DC Metro system, I realized a group could achieve their primary goal while still failing at many touch points (and I apologize for this long rant, but I tie it back to libraries at the end).

Here's what I mean: the Metro's primary goal is to move people around the city quickly and safely. They do this very well. Once you're on the Metro, it's easy to get to where you want to go, and there were maps of the colored routes everywhere I needed one.

However, I still think they failed at many of the touch points. First of all, actually getting onto the Metro was very difficult. There are big vending machines from which you need to buy a ticket - which is fair enough. However, they sell three different kinds of tickets, charge different prices depending on where you're going, and the fares also change depending on the time of day.

DC is a tourist city, so these vending machines were always swamped with people squinting at the tiny text on the machines trying to figure out what they needed to do. And even though there would be a bank of six or seven almost identical-looking vending machines, they each would offer different kinds of tickets.

So the complicated and confusing fees and policies is a touch point failure. So too is spelling it all out on a big sign with small print that no one could hope to read and understand.

I'm usually forgiving when it comes to technological breakdowns, because I know software hiccups and machines wear out. But I experienced an overabundance of this in the Metro. I saw broken escalators in at least half of the stations I went through. More than once when buying a fare card, one machine wouldn't take my dollar bills but another would. The machines all had coin slots, but all but one I tried just rejected all coins. This meant that for a $1.35 fare, I had to put in $2.00, and the machines don't give change.

In the Metro, you have to swipe your fare card to get into the system, and then again when you leave. Twice upon leaving my fare card was rejected, even though it had enough money on it, and I had to ask the station manager to let me out.

Another touch point fail are all of the big red slash-circles prohibiting items from the Metro. I like their sign explaining why they ban food, but all the "you can't do that here" signs seemed overly unfriendly.

Something that I did like was that inside the Metro they promoted their DCMetroOpenDoors.com website as a way to find out the status of stations and trains. But when I visited it, it does nothing but points to back to the main transit website, and even that link is hard to see. So working hard to promote a website that isn't helpful is a double-fail.

So what does this have to do with libraries?
I'm a dork and often relate daily experiences back to my job. In this way, the DC Metro reminded me of an unfriendly library. A library could have a great collection, anything a person could want, and yet still fail at every patron touch point:

  • Signage unreadable and unhelpful
  • Catalog and shelves difficult to navigate
  • Building facilities (elevator, catalog stations, etc) out of order
  • Policies complex and restrictive
  • Fees appear arbitrary and take people by surprise
  • Staff required even for simple tasks

So don't overlook your library's touch points - your patrons certainly don't. Just being open and having books and other materials on the shelves shouldn't be the main goal - the patron's experience in getting their items is what should be most important.

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5 Responses to “How is the DC Metro Like A Library?”

  1. laura Says:

    Oh man, I hate the DC Metro, for all the reasons you mention. I’m now fascinated by the idea of comparing public transportation systems to library types, though. The NYC subway is like the great urban public library with tons of resources — and drunk guys in the corners.

  2. Marcie Says:

    Nice post. Some good stuff to think about.

    Just wanted to say that the fare card machines do give change. You put in the amount you have, press the down arrow to the amount you want on the card, and then press “done” (or something similar). Your change comes out the bottom. In coins… I’m a transplant from the DC metro area, so I’m jealous of the CIL attendees. 😉

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Marcie: Thanks for the correction (although the fact I didn’t see it even when I was looking for it could be considered another fail – which is something libraries also do).

    @laura: Boston’s T is pretty good, comparatively. One flat rate to get in and you can ride it all day. It’s a little bit dingy, but safe, relatively easy, and many of the stations have musicians (which is more pleasant to listen to that cell phone ring tones in libraries).

  4. Alex Says:

    Lots of people complain about Metro’s pricing system. One price-fits-all would be convenient, although some visitors who just need to get from Washington International to Crystal City might resent paying the same fare as I do for my daily commute. I also agree with you about the rat signs – they are a clever use of humor. That’s about all I agree with you on here, though.

    The reason things break down is because Metro is greatly underfunded. As a public librarian, you should sympathize.

    I don’t know why they’re advertizing the DC Metro Opens Doors website now, instead of simply promoting Metro’s main site. Perhaps they have big plans for it, but it’s still a relatively new thing, as you can see from the fact that there is very little on its homepage, besides the link to the WMATA site. You know you’re just quibbling here, saying you found it hard to see. Why couldn’t you instead say something nice about the fact that it links directly to the WMATA site, which is such a handy resource? In the event of problems, they stream alerts on most pages. Their Trip Planner let’s you figure out several alternatives for getting anywhere on the system, calculates the fare, and provides you with a map and walking directions. You can download PDF schedules and maps of all the bus routes. There are lots of other neat things there too numerous to mention.

    The red slash-circle signs might annoy you, but as you must have noticed, in general people respect them, and most riders seem to appreciate that fact.

    Finally, you are indeed a dork if you can’t figure out how to work the ticket machines, or ask a station master to show you (all the ones I’ve ever spoken to were courteous and helpful). Whether it’s because you’re a stereotypical obnoxious Bostonian, or you’re simply stretching things because you feel obligated to crank out a blog post, you’re judging Metro unfairly (like a lot of people do with regards to libraries). Coming from Baton Rouge, I am very thankful for such a safe, clean, cheap, and generally reliable and convenient transportation option. If you think about it, it has a lot of the same good qualities libraries do. To me, that’s a more accurate picture of how DC Metro is like a library.
    Yes, Metro has problems, but you can’t expect touch points to work if you insist on being out of touch.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Alex: You’re right, I did focus on my negative experiences in the Metro. As I said, they’re already meeting their primary goal of getting people quickly and safely around the city, so the point of my post was to look at areas that could be improved.

    This is something that can only be done by an outsider, because staff or frequent users are too close to not automatically overlook or sidestep pitfalls that will catch newbies (speaking of which: I was surprised to hear an announcement in almost every Metro station along the lines of, “Is this your first time riding the Metro? Watch out for our doors – they don’t automatically reopen like elevators and they may hurt you.” Alarming, but very helpful for first-time riders).

    So I think libraries getting outsider reviews, warts and all, is a good thing. It could be from patrons or staff from other libraries, and while it might not be easy to hear, it seems the most helpful feedback is on the areas that fail to meet peoples’ needs. There are always reasons for the shortcomings, but that’s not the point – my point is that if we make a bad first impression, or are perpetually difficult to use, people will go elsewhere.

    As for being underfunded, you’re absolutely right that it can affect service, but that can’t be a conversation-stopper. Even though my library’s budget has been cut each of the last few fiscal years, there is no way my patrons would let me use that as an excuse to stop meeting their needs. We’ve had to make tough decisions, and in every case where we had to cut back services, we’ve tried hard to communicate why that cut was necessary. Now that I think about it, this whole Touch Point idea basically boils down to how well an organization communicates.