Express Transit Chronicles: tight pants and other Face ID fuckups

Express Transit is the best and most natural way of using Apple Pay. It first came to iPhone with Mobile Suica in 2016, expanding incrementally until finally going wide with iOS 15 Wallet. Suica has been around so long in Tokyo that younger generations don’t know anything else, it’s ubiquitous. Used global NFC iPhones and Osaifu Keitai are ubiquitous too so there are a lot more people using Mobile Suica, and complaining about it.

Mobile Suica complaints aren’t a bad thing. All those bad Suica App reviews on the App store and complaints on Twitter mean that people use Mobile Suica enough to download Suica App, register an account, use it, then go online and complain. It’s a gold mine of information, invaluable feedback telling us what trips users up at transit gates, a user base with 15 years of mobile transit experience. Any transit operator looking to implement good mobile transit service would greatly benefit from studying strengths and weaknesses of Mobile Suica, the worlds largest, oldest and most widely used mobile transit card service. Unfortunately nobody bothers to do so.

Tight pants + face masks = Face ID fuckups
As always, most Apple Pay Suica problems boil down to Face ID issues that disable Express Transit. Mobile Suica support even has a dedicated help post it puts out regularly. Face/Touch ID and Express Transit are joined at the hip. When Face/Touch ID is disabled, Express Transit is also disabled, a passcode is required to turn them on again. From the iOS 15 user guide: you must always enter your passcode to unlock your iPhone under the following conditions:

  1. You turn on or restart your iPhone.
  2. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone for more than 48 hours.
  3. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone with the passcode in the last 6.5 days, and you haven’t unlocked it with Face ID or Touch ID in the last 4 hours.
  4. Your iPhone receives a remote lock command.
  5. There are five unsuccessful attempts to unlock your iPhone with Face ID or Touch ID.
  6. An attempt to use Emergency SOS is initiated.
  7. An attempt to view your Medical ID is initiated.

You might think a passcode unlock is always the same, however there are surprisingly different Express Transit results at the gate show in the following video clips.

  • The first video shows Express Transit in normal action when Face ID (or Touch ID) and Express Transit mode are on. This is exactly what Suica users expect at transit gates and store readers. When it doesn’t work like this every single time, they complain.
    The second video shows a passcode request after restarting iPhone (#1), not something that would happen in real world use but I wanted to show the different kinds of passcode requests.
  • The third video is the most common one: the Apple Pay screen appears with a passcode request (#5-five failed Face ID attempts when wearing a face mask), this is exacerbated by Face ID Raise to Wake which is why I recommend that Face ID users turn it off when wearing face masks. There is a similar but separate issue when a user inadvertently pushes the side buttons (#6-emergency SOS • iPhone shut down), this happens more than you might think because side buttons are easily pressed when iPhone is in a tight pants pocket, especially when iPhone is in a case which is pretty much everybody.
  • The last video shows manual Apple Pay card selection and authentication when an Express Transit is not set, this is also how Apple Pay works on open loop transit systems without Express Transit support such as Sydney’s Opal.

An interesting side note about Japanese transit gate reader design UI. The blue light NFC reader hit area not only makes a great big visual target, it tells us the gate is ‘ready and waiting’. Notice how the blue light goes off when the reader is busy with a card transaction, then blinks on again ready and waiting for the next card. Watch the above videos carefully and you’ll notice the blue reader light stays lit with every false read attempt. Only when the correct card is brought up does it blink off and complete the transaction. When there’s a real problem the blue light changes to red.

This is simple, clever and user friendly design as your eyes are naturally focused where your hand is but you don’t see the design anywhere else except the new OMNY system readers. Copying the Japanese gate reader UI design is a smart move by Cubic Transportation Systems and MTA but their LED screen NFC hit area combo design appears to be somewhat fragile. The green ‘GO’ might seem like a nice touch but I suspect it subliminally makes a use wait for it. More feedback isn’t always better. Every millisecond wasted at the transit gate is a bad design choice.


Fixing Face ID
iPhone users in America only became aware of Face ID shortcomings thanks to COVID face mask mandates. Yes Virginia, Face ID sucks with face masks and Express Transit users in New York and London came face to face with issue #5: five successful Face ID attempts disables Face ID and Express Transit. It got so bad that MTA pleaded with Apple to ‘fix Face ID’. Apple dribbled out some Face ID “fixes” that didn’t fix very much.

iOS 13.5 introduced a Face ID with face mask passcode popup tweak that didn’t make passcode entry any easier and certainly didn’t fix Face ID use with a face mask. People quickly forgot about it.

iOS 14.5 introduced Unlock iPhone with Apple Watch that was widely ballyhooed by tech bloggers but real world use was a different story:

I find it fails me too often on the daily commute and in stores, usually at the very moment I need to launch dPOINT or dPay apps at checkout. I also get the feeling that Apple Watch battery life takes a hit too… If it works for you that’s great, but the Unlock with Apple Watch end user experience will be all over the place.

Also telling was that online Face ID/Express Transit complaints continued to grow despite the iOS 14.5 feature. Unlock with Apple Watch is a one trick pony, it unlocks a Face ID iPhone when a mask is detected, nothing more, no Apple Pay, no Face ID fix.

iOS 15.4 introduced Face ID with a mask for iPhone 12 and later. This is the first true fix for using Face ID with face masks, finally doing all the work Face ID does from unlocking iPhone to authenticating Apple Pay and apps. It’s not perfect as it doesn’t fix Face ID for earlier iPhone X-XS-11 models, and there are trade offs as it reduces Face ID security for the convenience of keeping your face mask on. In my experience Face ID with a mask on iPhone 13 Pro is certainly an improvement but slower and less successful than using Face ID without a mask. Face ID with a mask is also somewhat quirky. It doesn’t like strong backlighting, some users report frequent ‘look down’ requests depending on the their type of face and glasses.

Now that Apple has a focused Face ID with face mask roadmap that restores the Face ID Apple Pay experience, we can ignore all that mushy ridiculous Touch ID + Face ID dual biometric iPhone talk. Expect Apple to focus on improving Face ID with a mask performance on legacy Face ID on iPhone 12 and 13 in future iOS updates and delivering phenomenally better Face ID technology in future iPhones.