Clipper Card Website and Autoload Fail

Leave it to the government to take an otherwise brilliant idea and disfigure it so badly that it makes you want to just put it out of its misery. If it’s true that a camel is a horse designed by committee, then the Clipper Card is the three-legged, syphilitic camel of public transportation payment systems.

Clipper Card is the three-legged, syphilitic camel of public transportation payment systems.

If the agencies that birthed this malnourished horror of a baby bothered to consult a product designer, that designer should be publicly flogged for crimes against the citizens of the SF Bay Area.

I recently switched to the new Clipper Card system which is supposed to unify payment options across most of the major transportation agencies in the Bay Area. In theory Clipper should be totally awesome – one card to pay for all your transit needs, with built-in discounts and the ability to load your card via cash, ACH, credit cards or commuter checks.

In practice, however, it sucks.

I won’t go into all the wonderfully creative ways in which Clipper fails (many of which are documented here), but rather I’m going to focus on the special hell that is Clipper’s website, and in particular its Autoload functionality (or lack thereof).

Click to toggle info on what Autoload is.

Autoload is the method by which your Clipper card recharges itself once it falls below a balance amount (that you can set). You can set up Autoload from a bank account or from a credit card. Unfortunately, due to Clipper’s 1970s-speed computer system it takes 3-5 days for even a credit card Autoload transaction to post to your Clipper card, and 5-10 days for an ACH transfer to show up. Wizard.

It gets better (worse), though. If you want to set up Autoload, you have to set it up separately for each agency that you want to have credit with. The one exception is if you simply Autoload cash – that can be used systemwide. But any discounted or high-value tickets offered by an agency (e.g. BART’s $48 for $45 discount) require Autoload to be set up separately for that particular agency. I can understand why this is (separate accounting, etc), but it’s very confusing for newcomers.

Clipper’s Website – An Exercise in Futility

I set up Autoload for BART’s high-value discount ticket ($45 for $48 in credit) when I first got a Clipper Card six weeks ago. In order to qualify for the Autoload discount I had to give my credit card info, which I dutifully entered into their system.

Today I wanted to check on my Autoload settings and see which credit card I had used to set up Autoload, so I went to the Clipper website and logged in. I didn’t see a link to “edit” Autoload, so I went to the next most obvious place and clicked the “Set Up Autoload” menu link. That was my first mistake. As you can see below, there is nowhere to edit one’s Autoload info.

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Only mildly annoyed at this point, I went to Clipper’s Frequently Asked Questions and found instructions on how to edit Autoload. Mostly straightforward, if a tad unintuitive.

Boy was I in for a surprise!

It turns out that the FAQ is completely wrong. The link it references does not exist!

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Not one to give up easily, I started exploring the page and noticed a “change billing information” link. “I wonder what that does,” I thought to myself. So I clicked it.

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Turns out what it does is scare the hell out of you!

Before I can continue my wild goose chase I must first accept terms of service that authorize Clipper to charge me. Keep in mind at this point I’m still just looking for information on my existing Autoload settings. I’m not trying to purchase anything or authorize a payment. Doesn’t matter. I have to authorize payment first.

Another fun fact, as I later learned, is that you have to agree to these terms EVERY TIME you return to this screen. It’s a mandatory step in the process that never goes away, no matter how many times you check the little box. Isn’t that super?!

Ok… I’ve made it this far, so out of morbid curiosity I’ll agree to the Terms and Conditions just so I can keep playing this demented game.

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Scary warning!


What does the next screen hold for us…

Ah ha! Address and billing information! Maybe we’re getting closer!

But wait. What is this?

It’s actually just address information. Where’s my credit card info? I know I gave you my credit card information.

In fact, this screen brings up a whole bunch of questions:

  • Why don’t you tell me that you still have a credit card on file for me?
  • You do still have a credit card on file for me, right? It didn’t disappear, did it?
  • Which Autoload product(s) is my billing info linked to? I have to set up Autoload separately for each transit agency, so which agency or agencies does this billing info pertain to?
  • Where did the left-side navigation menu go?
  • And most importantly, where the hell do I EDIT MY AUTOLOAD SETTINGS?!
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I scoured this page for a few minutes, mulling over all the above questions, when I finally noticed the navigational “breadcrumbs” across the top of the page:

Account Management > Edit Autoload > Payment Details

Hmm… that looks interesting. I wonder what “Edit Autoload” does. So I clicked.


Finally I found it! The place to edit Autoload! That only required 5 completely unintuitive steps and ignoring Clipper’s incorrect FAQ entirely.

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The astute observer will notice that on this page the only thing to “edit” is actually the option to disable Autoload entirely. That’s it. There is no payment information, no ability to choose a different credit card for Autoload. Just disable.

And if you try clicking the “Update” button without having selected the disable option the website will present an error message instructing you to choose “an” option before proceeding. I think it should tell you to choose “THE” option, since there’s only one thing to do!

I Could Write a Book

I wish I could say that Clipper’s suckage was limited to just the Autoload fail I’ve highlighted in this post. Unfortunately, the crimes against usability and design are so numerous that they could provide content for an entire textbook on how NOT to design a website. It’s tragic, really, because the Clipper Card idea has such amazing potential and, if implemented well, could be a delight for its users.

Instead, it’s incredibly frustrating and makes me want to throw things.

I wish I knew how this website and the procedures behind the Clipper Card were designed. We live in the SF Bay Area, home to some of the best product and web designers in the WORLD, and yet we have a transit payment system that feels like it was a high school project.

I’ve submitted feedback to the MTC, but I’m not holding my breath that any of this gets fixed any time soon. I would like to state publicly, however, that I will happily offer the MTC my services and advice on how to improve their consumer website. My designer friends and I would be happy to fix some of the more egregious problems in an effort to make the system better for everyone.

If you’re listening, MTC, please do something about your website, whether or not you enlist my help. Clipper Card users everywhere would thank you (and you’d probably save some money on customer service).

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  • Christian Straight

    Then there’s the saga of Clipper Card blocking the entire use of the card if one element fails.  If you have bought a Caltrain monthly pass for Clipper and a Muni Monthly pass, the billing is done at different times.  If now the Caltrain Monthly pass is charged correctly but something goes wrong with the Muni, the entire Clipper Card is blocked for both Caltrain and Muni.  In other words they get you for the cost of the Caltrain Monthly pass for at least 72 hours.  This system has become a major source of stress and aggravation.  It’s broken and needs to be revamped at birth.

  • That sounds like a nightmare. I haven’t had that experience, thankfully, but it just goes to show how poorly this thing was designed.

  • I just started using Clipper this week, and ran into the same thing.  But a couple days ago, it was fixed.  Now when I click on “Check card value” there’s a line for my BART HVD with an Edit Autoload link that does the right thing.

  • Excellent. Thanks for the update. I’m glad they’re at least making some updates, even if it’s super slow. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, IMHO, so let’s hope they keep moving in the right direction.

  • Guest

    Oh yeah, Clipper totally makes my head explode in multitudinous ways, including the difficulty of changing your credit card information.  (I actually found your page when searching for instructions on how to do so!)  You’ve done a great job in documenting this problem; I hope you’ll get through to MTC and get it fixed.  Don’t bother with MTC or Clipper staff though.  You should go to your MTC Commissioners (are you in SF?  That’s David Campos and Scott Wiener).

  • Guets

    Odd.  When I click “Check card value” there is no reference at all to my autoload product.  It doesn’t show that I have an autoload product or that there is any BART value.  And certainly no link to edit it.

  • Suzharle

    It took me a half hour to find it, spinning in circles and reading this blog since I was sure I am not alone. After logging in:
    Account Management. 
    Next to CLIPPER CARD SERIAL NUMBER is a link to Çheck Card Value”
    on the CARD VALUE page, near top is the serial number. ‘
    Next to that is “CHANGE BILLING INFORMATION’ click
    agree to terms and add name
    next click will reveal the credit card details to change. Et Voila. 
    very clunky site for this generally simple update process on other business sites.

  • Thanks for sharing your tip. Seems they’ve changed the website slightly, so it’s not entirely impossible to find the Autoload settings like before, but it’s still a horrible user experience. I just wish they’d consulted a competent designer.

  • Christian

    Awesome, I tried to follow your guide, in order to cancel my Caltrain autoload, but when I click on the “Edit Autoload” link, I get a message saying “An internal error occurred.”… Seems almost like you had found something that they didn’t want you to find. Now they’ve fixed it.

  • I’m sorry you couldn’t find a workaround. I noticed they’ve made some updates to their site since I posted this. I wish that they would make it easier for users, but it seems they’re making things harder instead. Sad.

  • Le Lud

    Same thing here, when clicking on “Edit Autoload”, I get “An internal error occurred. If you were attempting a credit card transaction….”
    The ergonomy of this site is sooo bad, it’s scary!

  • Amen, the website is pure horror…

  • Pingback: Why the Clipper Card makes me hate Caltrain | Dana Yates()

  • Argh they changed everything again.

  • I just logged in again and it looks ever so slightly improved. At least now there are actual links to explicitly disable Autoload and to add more value. It’s still a horror show from a UI perspective, though. 

  • AJ

    Autoload is a diaster ad root of a lot of problems.  Clipper Card staff unknowledgeable about their systems, one mistake by wageworks and trinet has so far cost me over $300

  • Owen

    Leave it to the government? Nay, monstrous children like Clipper can only birthed when government agencies join in unholy union with corporations looking to make a quick buck. I am pretty sure that the blame for the poor website falls squarely on the Cubic Corporation — and what incentive do they have to fix it?

    “Clipper was developed by Australian-based ERG Group and Motorola under the ERG-Motorola alliance in April 1999. However, upon the launch of Clipper, Cubic Transportation Systems has taken over administration of distribution, customer service, and financial settlement of the program.”

    “Cubic Corporation is an American public corporation providing military defense equipment and automated fare collection equipment. It is headquartered in San Diego, California, with offices in North America, Europe, India, and Australia.”

    Why does “Cubic Corporation” sound like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel?

  • Elizabeth Hatcher

    Are there? PLEASE TELL ME WHERE. I’ve been trying for the past 30 minutes to find it. I can find links to add value and change payment information, but nothing to edit or cancel Autoload. Of course, the FAQ tell me to do things I can’t or click links that don’t exist.

  • cha sao bao

    Why does clipper force caltrain riders to pay more if they already have an active eight ride passbook? I ride zone 1-3. Didn’t tag off yesterday so they charge the max of $12.75. Called today they refunded $6.50 but I still have to pay $6.25. WHY? I already had four more rides which were paid for. I understand don’t like paying the $1.25 but WHY IN SEVEN HELLS must I pay $5.00 more just to bring my account whole?
    Why can’t clipper just deduct the zone ride from your 8 ride passbook? The $6.25 charge seems like a bloody scam! Damn you clipper and caltrains for using scummy business practices!

  • abuse

    Thanks for letting me post as guest. This post is highly cathartic and made me happy. I was going crazy, thinking I was the only one to know the madness and ineptitude that is their website. It’s understandable though, in the same way that good people die of heart attacks or children are killed in car accidents with drunk drivers. From the given outputs (e.g. shit shit website), it’s possible to deduce the incentives and constraints. Without getting too long winded, they don’t need or probably even want your help. They have no competition. “Fuck you.” There are no market forces — no market selection to kill off the failure.

  • GBB

    Nowadays there aren’t any breadcrumbs I can find….

    I gave up.

  • norman wheatley

    it’s got worse. There is now no trail of breadcrumbs to follow … no Edit or even disable autoload.
    It’s mind boggling that anyone could create such a useless system and then refine it to make it worse. What drugs are these people on?