While some icons in our culture are fairly standardized, like for a men’s room or the recycling symbol, the infographics of credit card swiping are all over the map. At least this gas pump allows the stripe to be oriented either to the left or to the right, so there’s only so wrong it can steer a user. (Photo by Paul Lukas)

Has the credit card industry ever tried to standardize its iconography? You can swipe left or right on this supermarket console. And you can hope the person in front of you on line opts for one or the other. (Photo by Paul Lukas)

In a bit of clarity, at least this graphic on a gas pump commits to the back of the credit card, the magnetic stripe indicated. (Photo by Paul Lukas)

New York City muni-meters, which accept credit cards and are gradually replacing conventional meters, take an unusual approach to swiping instruction: The illustration shows the magnetic stripe by "flipping up" the card’s corner, using the stripe as the primary visual signifier even though the card must be oriented face-down. (Photo by Paul Lukas.)

"We’ve tried to standardize the way the card is swiped across several generations of our terminals, so consumers will always swipe a card the same way at a VeriFone device," says VeriFone’s Erik Vlugt. "But we don’t have 100% market share, so other companies may have other approaches." (Photo Courtesy of VeriFone)

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Design Fail: Why Isn't There A Standard Way To Swipe A Credit Card?

The only thing universal about credit-card swipe infographics is that they’re unclear. Designers address the everyday misdirection.

See if this sounds familiar: You’re swiping your credit card at a supermarket, department store, or gas station, and the transaction doesn’t go through. So you refer back to the little illustration, realize you had your card oriented incorrectly, futz with it a bit, and finally swipe again the proper way (or at least what looks like it may be the proper way).

We’ve all been that person—and, worse, stuck on line behind that person. Why is that? After years of credit-card swiping, shouldn’t the act be second nature to us by now?

Part of the problem may lie in those illustrated directives. While some icons in our culture are fairly standardized, like for a men’s room or the recycling symbol, the infographics of credit-card swiping are all over the map. There isn’t even any consistency as to which side of the card is shown, the front or the back with the magnetic stripe. Does this represent an everyday failure of design?

"Probably," says Chris Nyffeler, design director at the California firm Ideo, whose projects have included designing gas pumps and ATMs. "I think one of the deeper challenges here is that you’re communicating in two dimensions. You have an X and Y axis, but the act of moving the card is usually along a Z axis, so that gets tricky."

Tricky, yes, but surely it shouldn’t be insurmountable. Has the credit-card industry ever tried to standardize its iconography? "Not to my knowledge," says Erik Vlugt, vice president of product marketing for VeriFone, a leading manufacturer of card-swiping devices. "We’ve tried to standardize the way the card is swiped across several generations of our terminals, so consumers will always swipe a card the same way at a VeriFone device. But we don’t have 100% market share, so other companies may have other approaches."

There is the basic fact that different manufacturers require different card orientations for their machines. Still, for the sake of clarity on the visual front, couldn’t everyone at least settle on which side to show?

"That would certainly bring some consistency," says Nyffeler, the Ideo VP, though quickly adding, "I’m not sure which side of the card would be better, though. They both have their advantages." This led into a chicken-y, eggy designers’ debate, as designers’ debates often are, especially when in the interest of restoring order. Nyffeler turned from considering the redesign of the infographics that illustrate the cards to the redesign of the actual cards. "If credit-card manufacturers were open to the idea of putting the magnetic stripe on the front of the card," he reasons, "then you’d have a nice, coherent system."

Then again, coherency may not be a universal goal. "Designers often want to not conform," says design and tech writer Rob Walker. "Like, 'If you’re going to show the back of the card, then I’ll show the front of the card.' It’s sort of like how every industrial designer wants to design a chair. It’s not as though the problem of a chair hasn’t been solved. They just like the idea of offering their own take on it."

It’s probably too late to achieve any form of swiping standardization for the current generation of credit cards. But what about EMV chip-equipped cards and smartphone-based payments, both of which should unseat magnetic strips within the next decade?

"We’ll need a system of communication symbology for those," says Nyffeler, "so maybe this is a chance to create something." Or perhaps we’ll be paying with our fingerprints or retina scans—so we’ll always know which way is up, rendering everyday transactional infographics as obsolete as credit cards.

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  • Stephen Truex

    Thanks for writing this article, the lack of standard interactions at POS/ATM is ridiculous. I agree with the closing sentiments: the entire model of interaction will soon change and make swiping obsolete. Forget the magnetic strip, just do it over wireless between Object A and Object B.

    For example, security key cards just need to be waved in front of a sensor. How about waving your phone (another soon to be outmoded device) which has Google wallet? Lots of opportunity for innovation around this.

  • John Critiq

    And that's what I call making a mountain out of a molehill... I agree its annoying at times but not as critical to warrant such standardization.

    And for some people, no amount/precision of infographics is going to help.

  • Billy Pamanian

    "I walk away from all credit card machines because I can't figure out the infographics,"

  • Norman

    i think a redesign of the sticker would be most practical. placement and visibility are as vital as the visual design itself.

  • Chris

    I feel as though the larger issue at hand is misinformation from the advertisements of said cards. Has anyone else ever noticed that in credit/debit card commercials, the card is always swiped with the side opposite the magnetic stripe? I know I can't be the only one.

  • Callum Taylor

    Why not create a device which allows for everything: either side swiping, inserting for chip, tap for NFC? Why teach people a certain way to do something when the tech exists to allow for any method?

    Or would people, being used to having to figure it out, look for direction?

  • J_Lillz5

    Did someone really write this article?

    It's clearly a scanner that reads cards both ways.

  • Cesar Sertzen

    I agree.  The swiping isn't actually an issue. The interface is the issue.

    I've never not been able to swipe a card.....If I don't get it on the first try, I will get it on the second try :)

  • Mohammed

    "But we don’t have 100% market share, so other companies may have other approaches." There's the problem. Even if you some how pull off a unanimous, yet highly unlikely, agreement between the card issuers, card manufacturers and card reader makers/suppliers on a standardised roll out of say EMV cards and readers, the logistics and cost behind that are considerable, taking into account that there are approximately 8.5-12 million merchants in the US accepting cards through point of sale systems (http://www.quora.com/How-many-....  Doable, but requires commitment and cooperation from the entire industry.

  • Bob Poliachik

    The user interface on credit card swipe machines is horrible.
    I attempted to use one yesterday that asked a series of yes/no questions. The display always pointed to the left for you to push a key, and the keys were red and green. But most of the time the red key was the "yes" key and the green key was the "no" key.
    I was caught between using the key color and using the display arrow to figure out which was yes and which was no. The display won.

  • oderb

    I don't understand why card magnetic strips apparently do not code for debit and credit. And so every time I buy coffee at my local convenience store or gas at the pump  I have to wait to choose debit or credit. Absurd. 

  • Christopher

    It's generally driven behind-the-scenes with the payment processor, the banks they're connected to, the merchant, and something grand called "consumer choice".
    It's a cheaper transaction for the merchant, FI, and processor when you choose debit, usually, than credit. You could get cash back for debit.
    You have less protections with a debit v. credit transaction, and the interchange rate also goes up for a credit v. debit transaction.
    It's all about fractions of cents, who gets them, and then trying to get the consumer to choose as well.

  • Michael Clifford

    One would think the problem could have been solved long before chip cards and tapping by simply putting two magstrip readers in the terminal. So no matter which way you swipe it always works. 

  • Eric D

    I completely agree, this clearly makes the most sense... it shouldn't require any thought on the part of the user. I pull it out of my wallet and stick it in the hole or swipe it.. as long as the stripe is going through part of the machine it should read successfully.

    It's irritating when you have to flip and reswipe the card because the reader is inflexible. Thankfully most gas stations have figured this out.. POS checkout terminals and ATMS need to get on the bandwagon and make this a standard.

  • econobiker

    Actually doesn't the EU have the better smart card technology versus this old school magnetic-y strip on a plastic card? Ditch the slot sliding readers all together?

    As far as standardization of acceptance method the lowly coin even suffers worse...

    How come there are no coin dump bins at self-serve, automatic register checkouts? Some self serve registers even have coin change bowls to give out change to complete a transaction...

    And the tiny coin acceptance slot is usually ergonomically in the wrong orientation of vertical. Consider what orientation that single serve drink/soda vending machines have their coin acceptance slots?

    Yeah, horizontal versus vertical.  Think about that deliberate lack of standardization.

    Want to accept coins fast- horiztontal. Don't really want to accept coins- vertical.

    Oh, we do know that many grocery stores have those coin counting machines which gain them a % of lazy folks money so ample profit motive to make accepting coins for standard transactions a pain in the neck...

  • econobiker

     Also the pictures above have card readers for two distinctly different environments: one is indoor, point of purchase, grocery retail and the other is outdoor parking kiosk which requires it to be very secure from abuse and theft by forced entry.

  • Lloyd Alter

    The real fail is the American failure to switch to chipped cards like Europe and Canada. We don't have this problem north of the border.