Replacing bad systems with bad systems

A metaphor involving parking meters.

Over the years, parking meters in town have evolved into a cumbersome, awkward system. Coins are heavy and you need to have them handy, meters need to be reinforced against theft and breakage, town employees have to empty the coins and securely deliver them to the bank, meter feeding allows local employees to hog spaces that might be used for shoppers… you get the idea.

But replacing all the meters is expensive and because it’s inherently a centralized system, involves a lot of lobbying as well as a group of people making a choice with limited expertise, a choice they’ll only have to make once, they can’t learn from their mistakes…

Enter Parkmobile, an app that promises everything to everyone. Except it increases the cost by more than 100% by charging fees, it’s awkward, has a silly password policy that makes it cumbersome to use, sends many many emails to users and it doesn’t generate more revenue or flexibility for the town. It charges people double and gives them less.

But you can see how they managed to find the budget to do the difficult and expensive work of lobbying one town after another to gain monopoly status.

The network effect is sticky and hard to overcome, and as we move the internet of things from our phones to just about everything we touch, it’s worth thinking about resilience, flexibility and the reason we need something in the first place.

Often, we end up compromising about our compromises, maximizing for the wrong outcomes and getting hooked on a new system that forgot what the original system was even for.

In this case, the first principles begin with why the meters exist in the first place. There are two goals:

  1. keep people from parking in the same place all day
  2. generate some cash to pay for parking enforcement

At first, having people put a nickel in a meter made sense. It’s just enough of a hassle and just enough of a cost that it all balances out.

Thanks to the portable id that a smart phone offers, one simple solution is to have people scan a code that automatically gets them a period of time to park at a spot for free. The dashboard for enforcement is easy to build, and in a typical small town, the revenue loss is pretty small–a few more shoppers more than makes up for the cost of lost meters.

If one still wanted to maximize revenue, it wouldn’t be difficult to hook that scanning tool up to any number of online payment services (like Venmo or Paypal) and simply cut out the middleman.

Once we see we have cars, spots, drivers and phones, all in a dance, we can make new decisions based on what we want, not what simply polishes what we had.

One could also easily sell parking passes, give local discounts, senior discounts or even give merchants codes they could use for employees in certain spots. You could make it so that the first ten minutes are free for fast in and out trips, or have it so local employees pay less in long-term spots, or that shoppers can easily get their parking cost rebated if they make a purchase.

Or you could even rethink why cars are taking up so much space in our villages and towns and reconfigure the entire flow of humanity and traffic.

But all of this is difficult because of the many constituencies involved and the stakes required in making UX choices in public.

Design thinking is simple to describe in two questions:

Who’s it for?

What’s it for?

In the case of a system replacing a previous system, these questions often get replaced with:

What’s the easiest way to polish what we compromised on last time?

Part of the magic of WordPress and its success is that the open nature and decentralized user experience they offer allows the individuals and organizations using it to embrace their first purposes instead of backward engineering from a centralized monopoly and a bagful of money.

And a key benefit of distributed systems is that they improve over time. When you see something that can be made better, make it better.

When a system is new, few are watching, so a handful of people with intent can design it and optimize it. As it gains in scale and impact, it calcifies at the same time that new tech arrives to codify the decisions that were made when the conditions were very different.

The next time you pose for a photo, keep in mind that we pose for photos because the speed of an exposure used to be so long that if you didn’t pose, the photo was blurred. We changed the tech, but baked in the cultural expectation.

Sometimes, we need to take a deep breath and go for better instead of more.