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A Really Smart Card: How Hong Kong's Octopus Card moves people

By Daniel Szuc

MANY PEOPLE HAVE EXPERIENCED PROBLEMS with public transportation systems: delays, ticket machines that are hard to use, inadequate or complicated signage making it difficult to find your way around a train system, disconnected modes of transportation, awkward payment systems, and poor transportation infrastructure to name a few. Such user experiences often result in people relying on their own car to avoid having to use public transportation.

Transportation in Hong Kong

In a crowded, busy, and fast-paced city like Hong Kong, with a population of close to seven million people, an efficient transportation system is critical to ensuring that people can move around smoothly. With over 90 percent of daily travel using public transportation—one of the highest rates in the world—Hong Kong provides a model for other cities experiencing or anticipating increased patronage as fuel prices rise and environmental considerations become more critical.

Hong Kong enjoys a superb public transportation infrastructure that includes buses and mini buses, the underground and overground trains and light rail of the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), ferries, and taxis.

A key component in integrating these diverse modes of transportation in Hong Kong is the Octopus card (Figure 1). The Octopus Card, or Octopus as Hong Kong citizens often refer to it, contributes enormously to the success of getting people around in Hong Kong. In fact, the Octopus has been so successful that it has extended beyond its initial use in public transportation and can be used to make payments at car parks, fast food outlets, convenience stores, supermarkets, vending machines, pay phones, leisure facilities, and schools. It has also been introduced successfully in non-payment uses such as access control.

Figure 1 shows an Octopus Card being scanned.
Figure 1. Scanning an Octopus Card is easy.

Put simply, the Octopus is a card and service that people in Hong Kong cannot live without.

What is the Octopus

The Octopus is the world’s pioneering and most extensive electronic payment system and was the first in the world to use contact-less stored-value smart card technology for public transportation. The card can be recharged at railway stations or outlets such as 7-Eleven that accept the card, and it is debited by “swiping” in proximity to a sensor.

In 1997, within three months of its debut, three million cards were issued. The Octopus now provides access to most public transportation in Hong Kong and people can use the card with over 2,000 service providers. About 50,000 Octopus readers are currently in use with a transaction time of 0.3 to one second on average.

There are now over seventeen million Octopus cards now in circulation, and 95 percent of the Hong Kong population aged sixteen to sixty-five own one. Octopus processes over ten million transactions per day, valued at HK$85 million (approximately US$11 million).

Why do People Love Their Octopus

Figure 2 shows a user checking recent transactions.
Figure 2. Checking recent transactions.

Complexity Beyond the Simplicity

The Octopus card overlays a highly complex technology. The Octopus reader/writer (called a “card reader”) houses a controller board and antenna that uses inductive radio frequency to transmit power and data signals to the processors inside the Octopus. Data communications to and from the Octopus is only established when the transfer of encrypted data verifies a mutually authenticated security handshake.

The card reader is connected to the Octopus processors and receives commands from the processor controller on the actions to be performed. The transaction data is then either stored in the card reader or sent back to a host computer, depending on whether the processor is online or offline. All transaction data is sent back to the Octopus Central Computer at the end of each day for clearing and settlement.

The amazing part is that all this complexity is shielded from the users with a simple user interface. All people need to know is how to recharge the card and to press the card against the card reader.

Same Service, Different Story…London and Melbourne

The main reason for the Octopus’ success is that it’s been set up as a joint venture with Hong Kong’s major public transport operators, so the operators and infrastructure that support it have real incentive to install the Octopus system. Other cities such as London and Melbourne have implemented similar systems, or are attempting to do so, with mixed success.

London implemented the Oyster Card which is used on the Tube, trams, buses, DLR (Docklands Light Railway), London overground, and some National Rail services. The Oyster Card can hold up to three products including Travelcards, bus passes, or pay as you go (“PAYG”).

There are some key differences between Octopus and the Oyster Card:

Melbourne’s myki Card in Australia plans to replace a number of ticket systems, primarily the current Metcard (metropolitan Melbourne) and V/Line (regional) ticketing systems. However, myki has been delayed until 2010, with the total cost of the system now at AUD$1.3 billion rather than the $1 billion originally budgeted.

As the myki system has not yet been released, it’s difficult to assess key differences and the positive impacts on the current system. However, the proposed system is intended to have the following benefits:

Beyond a Better Transport System

Hong Kong’s transportation system is one of the best in the world, but there is always room for innovation. The challenge for designers is to think of new ways to help encourage people to use public transportation to help reduce carbon emissions. What will it take to get people not to use cars and make public transportation a more moving user experience?UX

About the Author

Daniel Szuc has lived in Hong Kong for the past ten years and is the principal usability consultant at Apogee Usability Asia Ltd (www.apogeehk.com), a company focused on championing usability/UX in the region. For the last fifteen years he has enjoyed presenting to and sharing usability knowledge with user experience communities in Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the USA. Daniel co-wrote The Usability Kit with Gerry Gaffney. He is on the UPA board, and is a co-founder of the User Friendly events in China. He can be contacted at dszuc@apogeehk.com.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2008.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2008-4.html.

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