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March 15, 2005 12:01 AM

Broken: Credit card readers

Seth Godin writes in this post:

I bought gas for my car today and put the credit card in upside down. Took a few minutes in the snow to figure out what was going on.

But wait. Computers are close to free. Why should it be my job to put the card in right side up? Why can't the machine read the card in every direction?


Quite simply put -- COST. There are four reasonable orientations of a credit card for the slot. The mechanism for reading the card would need to be duplicated three more times. A company would need to see some economic advantage in making the swipe easier by adding to the cost of deploying and maintaining these more sophisticated card readers before they are deployed.

Alternatively, a credit card issuer may see and advantage in a card that has a stripe for all four orientations. This could be turned into a selling point for the card.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at March 15, 2005 10:48 AM

Wow, a card with swipes in all directions, that actually would be really nice. I have a tendancy to rub off the stripe from overuse, as well as the signing portion. I could rotate which swipe I use, for even wear.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at March 15, 2005 11:10 AM

This also reminds me of something that I think is broken. I use speedpass a lot for the convenience. If you've ever used it, there's a huge circle thing that lights up, and then a little box that says put speedpass here. Even though I use it once or twice a week, I still consistantly first put the speed pass wand on the big button, only then to realize my mistake and move it to the little box.

Posted by: Joshua Wood at March 15, 2005 11:12 AM

There is one more way in which a card reader can be "broken". While most card readers don't care which direction you swipe the card in, I HAVE run into a few that would only accept ONE direction.

Posted by: Gary Edstrom at March 15, 2005 11:52 AM

I've often wondered that myself. Then a few weeks ago, at the BP/AMOCO station my company uses for our staff's one free fill-up per month, I noticed that machines had been upgraded with readers that read the card either way. Now all I have to do is make sure the magstrip is at the top when inserting the card.

It's my opinion that the gas companies do what ever they can to get people in and out as FAST as possible. It's my personal policy to go to the next station if the pay-at-the-pump function is not working.

Posted by: Patrick Whiteside at March 15, 2005 01:43 PM

You've got to be kidding me. This is not broken; it just doesn't work the way some idiot named Seth wants it to work.

Here in the real world, as opposed to Seth's the utiopia that Seth wants to live in, things work only in a certain way. You learn how to use the tool. Just because we live in an age of cheap technology does not mean that things have to be designed to work in every possible way.

I have in my desk a bunch of scanners for reading customer and employee cards. The scanner has an icon showing you how to put the card. I'm not inundated with calls from employees complaining that the scanner doesn't work the way THEY want it to. BTW, each scanner costs $25... hardly free.

I wonder if Seth complains everyt time he uses a bathroom that he should be able to use the first device he comes across.

Posted by: Jay at March 15, 2005 01:52 PM

yeah, computers arent free. and we are not talking about a computer, we are talking about a card reader, which is also not free.

do you think a gas station chain wouldnt notice if suddenly they had to put 3 more card readers into all of their machines?

Posted by: nathan at March 15, 2005 02:12 PM

Jay, in your rush to call me an idiot, you missed my point.

Actually, the cost of goods of the actual scanning component is less than a few pennies. The RETAIL price is irrelevant.

The point of my post is that when computers get close to free, it's selfish and shortsighted to call your customers idiots. Instead, you can beat the competition by making a faster, easier, more efficient device.

Posted by: seth godin at March 15, 2005 02:14 PM

Seth, in your rush to call Jay selfish and shortsighted, you fail to realize that to most retail outfits, the consumer's time is free.

Nevertheless, multiply "a few pennies" over millions of pieces of equipment, and the cost becomes noteworthy. Consider that purchasing departments for manufacturers routinely make decisions to save a few pennies per unit.

Back to the specific idea of pay-at-the-pump. Would you pay, for example, a three-cent-per-gallon premium simply to not have to spend five seconds looking at the picture and figuring out the correct way to orient your card? Somehow, I've never had trouble getting my card in the right way in those machines.

Carlos Gomez makes an interesting suggestion with the idea of a card with stripes in all four locations. It would require that some of the raised printing be relocated, but from looking at the cards in my wallet, only the actual account number seems to be in a standardized location, and is already not in the way of this idea. The only way that I see this potentially causing problems would be in existing readers that do have heads on both sides and would potentially not understand what to do with the two concurrent data streams.

Posted by: Brian at March 15, 2005 02:38 PM

I fail to see the inefficiency is having one card reader, labled with an easy to read icon as to which direction you insert it. The components for the card reader, and then implementing them are two completely different cost factors, the machine itself would have to be redesigned and programmed to be ready to read from any one of the four spots. 99% of people do not slide their card in upside down when there is no directions icon visible which eliminates 2 of your so called "necessary" slots.

Im going to act like a software developer here and say in this situation "it's the users fault".

If i wanted absolute convenience, the gas truck would come to my home based on a signal my vehicle was giving off saying the fuel was low, he would then come in, fill my car and leave, already having my card number and information on hand, without me even knowing he was there.

But this is expensive, so is your alternative, parts cost, and implementation costs are two different things.

Posted by: Dragon at March 15, 2005 02:45 PM

Ideally, the card would have one physical way it could possibly be inserted, via a notch in the card, like floppy disks, like my Makita drill battery. Seth's problem with the card is twofold -- one, that he can insert it four ways, and two -- he wasn't getting negative feedback from the reader. Yeah, I know, the former means rolling out all-new cards before switching any of the machines, and the latter means each machine gets a little $1.00 (or whatever) sensor. Thanks for bringing that up.

They could have also put the stripe in the middle of the card, eliminating two incorrect positions by processing the "backward" bits in software. Ah, you say, but that's where the thumb goes. Solution: pinking shears for everyone.

Jay's "point" is immediately refuted by Patrick's post -- BP put in two readers for the card, cost be damned.

Also that "easy to read" icon is often rubbed off, or there's some piece of paper that screams "TWO DOLLAR HOT WAX"/"SMILE YOUR (sic) ON CANDID CAMERA" taped over it.

Go with the notch forcing function, let me be a zombie.

Posted by: Dr. Cardhouse's Magical Elixir That Is Actually Watered-Down Crank at March 15, 2005 03:33 PM

To argue whether it is the user's fault or the system manufacturer's fault is also a bit beside the point. Most of the people who are following this site have usability and interaction on the brain, so they tend to look at things and be able to decontruct them more easily than Joe Schlub. You need to think about and design for the grandmothers, non-tech savvy people, and just plain dim bulbs out there who still need to use technology to navigate through life, but have a lot of trouble figuring it out. (I once saw an old lady who thought the Point-of-Purchase keypad was a telephone. ("Hello, bank? Can you send me $20 to pay this nice clerk?")

The speedpass example is a pretty good one. Why don't credit cards migrate towards a similar "wave and beep" interface? Non-directional, storable on a keychain or in a wallet...

Actually, is there a good reason they haven't gone that way?

Posted by: marc at March 15, 2005 03:36 PM

Marc, when I bump into you "accidentally" on the bus, I wouldn't have to reach into your pocket to grab your card, I'd just have to activate the card reader in *my* pocket!

Posted by: Reed at March 15, 2005 03:42 PM

Jay and Seth are both right. But if you look at this purely from a customer experience point of view (and this is what this site is about), which card reader provides the better experience?

Gas stations need to see some economic advantage to spending the extra money. The fact that extra stripe reading elements increases the cost of a pump installation by some small amount can be overcome if it can be used to generate more revenue.

For example, Shell Canada's EasyPay system uses a keyfob RFID device to make paying the the pump even easier. This certainly increases the cost of a pump installation, yet they were willing to put that in to make paying at the pump as easy as place your keychain against a pad on the pump. I'm certain they ran through the business case for this and the increased revenue offset the cost of the program. Or if they weren't the first to do this, then they are playing catchup to prevent revenue erosion to those who do have RFID payment systems.

So Jay is correct. It does work the way it was intended and readers aren't free. But Seth is right in that these components are getting cheaper and cheaper. Somebody (and Patrick Whiteside has already pointed out one instance) is going to decide that there is an advantage to getting an improved card reader and will move to use it.

I recall in the municipality where I live, Esso was the first to introduce pay-at-pump card swipes. I found this to convenient enough that given a choice, I would alwys go to an Esso station. If a local gas station introduced multi-orientation card readers, I make it my first choice for a fill based on incremental convenience.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at March 15, 2005 03:45 PM

Computer components only cost pennies?

Computers, and printers are sold at virtually no markup. All profits come from Ink, and other accessories. There is virtually no profit in computers.

Any claim about the cost of components means nothing to the gas station, as they aren't purchasing the raw materials and manufaturing the product them selves, they have to buy the machines from another company.

Replacing every gas pump in North America, just to facilitate your inability to hold the card the right way up would be a huge waste of resourses.

With technology getting smaller and smaller, this will probably be implemented during normal mainenance, but it's not something that's broken.

Posted by: MinkOWar at March 15, 2005 04:34 PM

Reed: Good point.

Of course, that is already potentially true for my speedpass, the main entry to my apartment complex, the entry to my workplace, the "ignition" key to my Prius, etc.

Ain't technology great?

Posted by: marc at March 15, 2005 04:58 PM

The next step is upon us. It is not just the RFID for paying at the pump, we also have the 'leave your key in your pocket and drive your car' system on some GM vehicles as well as at domiciles and workplaces. And, as has already been pointed out we have a growing problem of portable reading devices and 'spoofing' at ATM's as well as more mundane forms of identity theft. Some of the wealthier families are now having identity chips implanted in their children. My dog has one of these under the skin between her shoulder-blades. How long will it be before everyone has the identification, financial and medical data on their implanted chips. Think of the ease of shopping...think of what it will mean to '...get someones digits...' How long will it be before our cell-phones are implanted in the neck at the base of the skull, behind the ear? How long until they are linked to our implanted data-bank chips and the mini-GPS in our abdomens?

I miss the good old days.

Posted by: Wil at March 15, 2005 07:08 PM

A slightly different angle: I've noticed that on many of these card readers, the graphic depicting how to insert the card is clumsy at best. I've seen people stare at the graphic for a couple of seconds, then stick their card in, and still do it the wrong way. Heck, I've done it myself. If it's this easy (and common) for users to make this mistake, something is awry, if not out-and-out broken.

While I agree it's expensive to add multi-directional reading capability into all these readers, surely making a clearer information graphic isn't a big deal. Hmmm....

Posted by: Michael McWatters at March 15, 2005 08:13 PM


Posted by: MIKE at March 15, 2005 09:36 PM

MIKE, have you noticed the caps lock key on your keyboard? It's just to the left (makes an L with your thumb...) of the 'A' key. Hit it, please. Once. Hopefully that'll turn off the little light near the top right (opposite of left) corner of your keyboard.

Posted by: anitsirK at March 15, 2005 10:18 PM

Michael McWatters,

ABSOLUTELY! I thought it was just me that could never seem to make sense of the icon. Something about the image being in the plane perpendicular to the actual insertion of the card, I think.


Bank of America just sent me a mini ATM/debit card designed to be put on a keychain along with the dozens of other little savings cards I have from the various stores I frequent. It's too small to fit into the ATM/gas station style reader, where you insert the whole card (or most of it) into the unit, but for the swipe-style POS units, it is ideal. If only my Driver's License were keychain-mountable I'd have no need for a wallet on a daily basis.

Also, I'd gladly pay $10 for a single keychain card that could somehow aggregate the numbers from the 5-6 cards I currently have on there, as well as the others I keep at home for stores I visit less frequently.

Posted by: Dave P at March 16, 2005 09:55 AM

>You've got to be kidding me. This is not broken; it just doesn't work the way some idiot named Seth wants it to work.

Ah good. Name-calling.

Jay, before you go further, you should know where you are (and you should keep a civil tongue in your head).

Most of us here have some interest in the field of usability or product design. It *IS* our goal to make at least the mechanized part of our world as Utopian as possible.

'Broken' - as defined by the existence of this site refers to a system's usability. If it's poorly designed such that it confuses the user or makes him do more work than necessary, it's broken. Period. No excuses.

My personal mantra when refering to mechanical or digital devices is: "Me, master, you slave".

>things work only in a certain way. You learn how to use the tool. Just because we live in an age of cheap technology does not mean that things have to be designed to work in every possible way.

Yes, it does. That is one of the pimary goals of the product designer.

>I have in my desk a bunch of scanners for reading customer and employee cards. The scanner has an icon showing you how to put the card. I'm not inundated with calls from employees complaining that the scanner doesn't work the way THEY want it to. BTW, each scanner costs $25... hardly free.

Electronic products have infiltrated our lives. We have to interact with them in the most unlikely of places, at the most inconvenient of times. Realize that the whole point of computers and software and electronic devices is that they are our SLAVES. They are there so that we can make them do whatever we need to make our lives easier.

WE don't learn to interact with THEM, THEY learn to serve US.

Posted by: DaveC426913 at March 16, 2005 10:18 AM

Being in ATM interface design, I can tell you it's not about costs or computers or software.

Mechanical devices such as card readers are fallible. They must suffer countless indignities from humans who don't interact in nicely organized digital ways. Cards and card readers are mangled, shoved, teased ( believe it or not, 'teasing' is a technical term), poked, fed, and some abuses that still remain a mystery to us.

Unlike a change to software, or swapping a CPU chip, mechanical interfaces are very difficult to manage, even if money is no object.

Simply putting more mechanical devices in a machine doesn't make it easier for humans to use, it actually makes it harder, more prone to failure, and less reliable - until they iron out all the kinks.

They'll get them in, it just takes time and testing.

Posted by: DaveC426913 at March 16, 2005 10:27 AM

As luck would have it, I refueled last night at a Shell station which was fitted with new pumps less than a year ago. After swiping my card, I realized that I had inserted it incorrectly (according to the diagram), but it worked anyway. I put it in right-side-up, but flipped left-right.

The other possibility, of course, is that the diagrams are wrong, but I've never noticed unusual levels of cursing at that station.

At a different Shell station recently, I was unable to buy gas at a certain pump, because you have to enter the zip code for your card's billing address. The '5' key on the keypad was non-functional (worn out from over-use?); that digit is in my zip code, and anyone else's who lives that station's city. For want of a button, the pump was lost.

Posted by: mph at March 16, 2005 12:51 PM

This isn't broken, you are. If you cant follow directions, especially pictographs of how to insert your card, you are the one who is broken. Dont place the blame on anyone but yourself... Idiot.

Posted by: scooter at March 16, 2005 03:00 PM

Check out the HalfBakery for discussion on this very topic:

Posted by: eeknay at March 16, 2005 06:32 PM

You people need to get a life! Worrying about this type of "little thing" will cause you to become insane! Or, at the very least, neurotic. If you put as much energy of thought into world peace or global hunger, those problems might be solved. But which way to insert your credit card? Come on!

Posted by: Incredulous at March 17, 2005 08:31 AM

scooter, maybe you shouldn't be getting so angry at everyone else before reading their comments. If you'll notice, they've been having a nice little discussion about various *constructive* ways to help this problem.

Posted by: fuzzy at March 17, 2005 02:37 PM

Quote from Incredulous: "You people need to get a life! Worrying about this type of "little thing" will cause you to become insane! Or, at the very least, neurotic. If you put as much energy of thought into world peace or global hunger, those problems might be solved. But which way to insert your credit card? Come on!"

This, Incredulous, is what many of us do for a living. Not all of us, like you, are out saving the world. By the way, since you are out saving the world, preventing global hunger, etc., how are you able to read and respond to posts like this?

Perhaps, instead of criticizing those of us who are in the business of improving the little things in life, you should go back to your job: solving the world's major problems. I would hate to think a post on "This is Broken" took even 5 minutes from your busy superhero duties.

Posted by: Mac at March 17, 2005 08:02 PM

Think of it this way. Would you rather expend/burn .0001 Calorie to turn your wrist and hand around, or have numerous companies spend at least $10 million plus to make an All-Directional Card Reader. ? ..............

Posted by: Please at March 18, 2005 02:39 AM

Yes, BURN THE CALORIE! This is like saying that a video game controller is broken because you cant do everything with a single button so you want a controll that pushes all the buttons at the same time.

Posted by: Picho at March 21, 2005 04:02 PM

is it just me, or is the guy who wrote this somewhat stupid and has no knowledge about computers at all?

Posted by: garfield at March 22, 2005 09:37 PM

Maybe it's just me, but every machine I ever have to put my card into accepts the card in the same way: same way up; same way round; same everything. Never caused me any grief. I keep the card the same way up in my wallet, take it out, turn it through the same angle with the same hand, put it in the slot the same way ... and it works. Then I take it out and put it back into my wallet the same way ready for next time.

I've always thought of this as an effortless way to make life easy for myself, but perhaps I'm missing out on all the excitement of using my card in random orientations which gives me a reason to post to This Is Broken and tell everyone stuff they don't need to know?

Who knows, If I carried on like this maybe I could graduate to sueing people for not writing "Danger! Do not drink the contents" on the side of car batteries!

Posted by: Squig at March 23, 2005 05:18 AM

I think many people here have missed a big point.....

the computer components would be very cheap, undobtedly. i thik that individual gas stations could easily regain that money. but unless they are building a BRAND NEW gas station, they would have to pay A TON OF MONEY to get the new readers installed. also, if none the the stations upgrade, then it puts no pressure on any of the stations to upgrade due to the ineptititude of one customer. I mean, you put your card in upside down, curse, and fix the problem. its not like 'Oh, i put the card in upside down. i hate this station now, i am not going to come back in my entire life!' A few people being stupid is no reason to spend millions of do.,lars, at least not when the idiots are not a public danger.

Posted by: dude at April 4, 2005 11:59 AM

That is a multimilliondollar idea!

Posted by: asdfas at May 7, 2005 03:03 AM

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