In my last article, “Design Thinking Challenge — Reframing the Question,” I discussed the importance of reframing the question as the first step in successful design thinking.

Here, I would like to reverse engineer a design-thinking problem that existed and was solved by reframing the question. More interestingly, it was solved unsuccessfully twice before the current system! (Reframing the question isn’t enough on its own to ensure a successful solution!)

In Boston (and many other cities), the issue of not having quarters for an old meter has been a growing issue in an increasingly cashless world. So the Challenge Question could have been:

How can we make sure users can get quarters for their ?

On its own, we can imagine some solutions that might be excited without the reframing.

  • An arcade quarter machine at the end of every street
  • Requiring local businesses to have quarters available
  • Buckets of quarters all over the place
  • Adding a feature to ATM’s that allows for change withdrawal

These ideas are interesting — but fairly unrealistic. And a number of them require the user to have cash (the core issue!) in order to exchange it for quarters. Not an ideal situation.

Now let’s reframe the question:

How can we ensure that users can pay for their parking?

This question leaves a lot for space for creative solutions to grow. And some solutions were tried!

  • Meters that accept credit cards (more on this later)
  • Putting street-wide parking machines that print tickets on every street

The problem with every one of these is the logistics required to implement them! Replacing every old meter with a new one that accepts credit cards would take countless hours, materials and workers — and yet, Boston attempted this first! And as a designer, I can imagine being presented with this question and starting right off trying to draw a parking meter that accepts credit cards, without thinking deeper about solutions.

All around Boston, meters that accept credit/debit cards can be found. They also accept quarters, and the card reader works at least 60% of the time. So basically, this is has created a whole new issue. The user now has confidence in being able to pay with their card, decreasing the likelihood of them having quarters even more, and then when the card reader doesn’t work, there are fewer systems in place to help the user get quarters! Breaking the user’s trust is a sin!

Now, to the brilliant solution.

A number of apps sprouted up, that allows for payment of parking using your mobile device. This may seem like an obvious solution, but the brilliant part is how they communicated the use of the app to the user.

In this case, the user is almost always finding out about this option, while standing at the parking meter (wishing they had quarters). These apps could have fallen into the trap of using the numbers already on parking meters or depending on word-of-mouth to spread their idea.

But instead, they printed out a sticker and stuck it on the meter.

The genius of using a sticker to address this issue is twofold:

  • The simplicity of implementation
  • The scalability

Other solutions often involved construction crews and high costs, whereas this solution involves someone sticking a sticker to whatever meter currently exists in that space.

There is nothing more satisfying to me than seeing a card-reading meter, with a sticker on it. A bad solution being solved by a better solution.

Don’t you look foolish now.

And in terms of scalability, if the company running the app wants to expand to another city, they have to print more stickers. They don’t have to hire a new construction crew or buy another ton of steel. Although many of these apps are run by the towns or cities they are in, even within a city, scalability matters, as it can be introduced district by district.

Possible improvement.

I do think there is one missed opportunity in the current design. I know that the QR code is in a constant cycle of dying/revival. These stickers seem to me like a perfect use of a QR code and could even serve as an educator by having an explanation of how to use it. Currently, to pay for parking, I have to type my personal pin, type the zone, and then type the space. So after typing 12 numbers on three screens, I can pay. If I could scan the sticker with my phone’s camera, and press “accept,” that would be amazing!

And to roll this update out, they just have to print more stickers!

Now, thanks for reading, I’m off to figure out what I can put a sticker on to make it better!

Claps keep me writing! 🙂

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