Monday, May 11, 2015

Payment Surfaces: Exploring the Everyday Context of Payments

IMTFI is pleased to cross-post this blogpost with TRANSACTIONS: A Payments Archive.

By Ben Lyon, co-founder of

I started a photo blog called Payment Surfaces in July 2014 to explore the everyday context of payments. When used as a noun, the word surface means “an outside part or layer of something.” When used as a verb, it means “to appear or become obvious after being hidden or not seen.” I hadn’t thought about this distinction until Taylor Nelms, one of the organizers of TRANSACTIONS, pointed it out, but it captures the essence of what I originally set out to do: To capture the protruding edges of an otherwise subterranean and increasingly invisible payments ecosystem that everyone interacts with every day.

Nearly one year and two hundred images later, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to take pictures of the same or similar things at opposite ends of the world. Themes are beginning to emerge. Here are five themes that piqued my interest:

1) Annotation

People add notes to payment surfaces for various reasons. In the examples below, annotation has been used to show a customer where to swipe their card, to help a customer calculate the total cost of a service, and to make sure customers only use coins of a certain denomination. All three appear to be in response to some design element that’s not obvious.

In other examples, I’ve seen businesses use notes on self-checkout lanes to promote social media engagement and solicit feedback, and to prevent customers from using mag-stripe cards at an ATM.

Design question: How might we enable a business to add and/or edit a note on a payment surface?

Images from Seattle, Washington, Cheboygan, Michigan, and Barcelona, Spain, respectively.

2) Configurability

Business owners want to adapt their payment systems to suit their specific needs, preferences, or processes. In the examples below, configuration has been used to encourage customers to use only $1 bills, to make the number of payment slots match actual inventory, and to discourage customers from paying by card.

If I were to guess the purpose of each, I would say that the first is to decrease maintenance costs by limiting how much change a customer gets, the second is to mitigate user error (i.e., customers putting money in unassigned slots), and the third is to minimize card fees.

Design question: How might we enable a business to “toggle” the features of a payment surface from one state to another?

Images from Seattle, Washington, Seattle, Washington, and Orange County, California, respectively.

3) Localization

Just as language changes from one place to another, so too do the ways payment surfaces are communicated. Whereas Americans are used to large tip jars, for instance, citizens in countries with higher-denomination coins are used to smaller tip plates and tip boxes.

Although the purpose in these examples is clear (i.e., encouraging customers to tip), the double effect may be to discourage non-locals from leaving larger tips (like a €5 note rather than loose change).

Design question: How might we enable a payment surface to adapt to a specific culture or environment?

Images from Barcelona, Spain, Keflavik, Iceland, and Frankfurt, Germany, respectively.

4) Nudging

Businesses want to nudge customers to act in a specific way. In the first example below, a petrol station offers a 7% discount to nudge customers to pay via cash. In the second, a petrol station uses choice words (“Welcome” versus “Accept”) to nudge customers to pay via a Shell Card. And third, a cashier gives priority placement to a tip jar over an HIV/AIDS donation jar. The business’s (or cashier’s) preference is clear in all three examples.

Design question: How might we enable a payment surface to entice/solicit a certain action?

Images taken along Interstate 90, USA.

5) The Visible Hand

Despite our best efforts, we can’t precisely control a user’s hand. In the examples below, you can see where commuters tap their coins while navigating the ticket selection screen below the frame, or hit their card against the “Card Guard” while paying for a DVD. The first example occurs when one of a user’s hands is idle. The second occurs when a user’s hand strays from the intended course.

Design question: How might we design payment surfaces to accommodate idle or straying hands?

Images from Barcelona, Spain and Seattle, Washington, respectively.

These are by no means the only themes that have emerged from my efforts to surface the infrastructures of payment. (For example, I’m also fascinated by the disposability of money in international airport terminals, but that’s for a later post.)

Please feel free to share your own insights or pictures. I’m happy to re-post relevant pictures with accreditation.

You can follow Ben Lyon on Twitter at @bmlyon.

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