Yes, QR Codes Suck for Transit

Here are QR Codes in action at subway transit gates in Beijing.

And here is Suica in action.

Working Backwards from the User

The Suica development starting point was a user problem with magnetic card commuter passes. Old style paper passes were visually inspected at gates and could stay ‘in-wallet’ with a clear plastic opening. Magnetic card commuter passes had to be removed from the wallet and feed through the gate reader. Engineers wanted to recapture the simplicity of paper passes with IC cards.

The development process involved a lot or trail and error but Suica turned out not only to be convenient and fast but also user friendly in the way that people use things, in-wallet or otherwise. This is a classic Steve Jobs design principle: start with the user experience and work backwards to the technology.

Smartphones replicate the in-wallet experience as ‘Express Cards’ on digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. The user pulls out the device and holds it to the reader. No unlocking or Touch ID/Face ID required.

QR Codes and EMV contactless on smartphones share the same transit problem of old magnetic card passes: they are not ‘in-wallet’. Devices have to be unlocked to open an app or perform a biometric authentication. This problem is compounded by poorly designed transit gate QR and EMV readers that end up forcing users to adapt to the technology and it slows everything way down. This is a design failure that would never meet the requirements of Tokyo stations where a gate has to clear 60 people a minute.

What’s fascinating to me is the assumption by some people in China, Hong Kong and even Japan that the QR Code success in China automatically qualifies it as a global payment standard regardless of the technology and business models already in place. This doesn’t ring true to me, there is something else going on.

China for example has put a lot effort into creating and promoting the China T-Union transit card standard which can be added to MI Pay, Apple Pay and Huawei Pay. Nevertheless there are not many people using China T-Union in the video. The Japanese tweet comments say that recharging China T-Union cards are not very convenient and do not offer the point goodies that AliPay and WeChat Pay do. Bingo. Is it really is that simple?

Technologies that have viable business models attached to them work better in the long run. FeliCa fares better than China T-Union or CEPAS (EZ-Link) because a transit platform like Suica does better job of attaching services and point goodies on the back end. Perhaps if China T-Union had a better business model that offered more recharge reward goodies and services on the backend to compete with QR ecosystems people might use it more, unfortunately business promotion is hard for government run transit authorities.

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