Is NFC hype real? A mini user research at NFC-enabled London bus stops [Infographic]

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A quick user research at NFC-enabled bus stops

According to Berg Insights, ‘‘between 2012 and 2017 the installed base of NFC (Near Field Communications)-enabled handsets will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 65% to reach 2.1bn units’’. So if you have a relatively new phone model, it probably has an NFC function.

51 Degrees measured their web traffic from NFC-activated devices, revealing a rather slow but steady increase since January 2013.

Global mobile traffic from NFC activated phones


A graph on NFC prevalence

Despite the subtle slowdown, the prediction is still positive, signifying the global NFC penetration to reach 1.2 billion units by 2018.


While the data give us a holistic idea of NFC prevalence, something crossed our minds. As a geeky and technology-driven company, we wanted to know how people are actually using and interacting with NFC in their daily life. In other words, yes the NFC-enabled phones are apparently flooding the market. But to what exactly are their experiences using this technology?

Is NFC improving London bus service?

NFC was first introduced back in 2012 to TFL and red buses running around London went cashless subsequently. The purpose of NFC is simple: to improve customer experience. Today the users can use NFC-enabled credit or debit cards (also EE’s cash on tap) to pay the fare on bus, tube, DLR and Overground.

According to the Qfuse website, the TFL had already surpassed 1 million NFC scans at the point of April 2013. Contactless payment will unmistakably grow over the next couple of years. But are NFC tap symbols at bus stops also enjoying the same success story?

How does it work?

NFC=enabled London buses

NFC-enabled bus stop

It’s simple. Just tap your NFC-activated smartphone (or scan the QR code if your smartphone doesn’t have NFC function). As you tap on those tags set beside the displayed bus map, you will be taken straight to the screen where you can find the timetable – without involving typing nor swiping the screen.

NFC-enabled London bus stop

Meanwhile, the tags installed beside Clear Channel’s advertisement panels take you to a site where they offer you more interactive and personalised ads and promotions.

NFC promotion on mobile

A closer look at the UX of NFC tags

So NFC tags are there to improve the quality of your bus journey. Given the context, people should find the tags useful. But personally I haven’t seen many people using the tags. Why? Here are our assumptions:

  •    The NFC tags are more utilised at bus stops with no electric timetable displays.
  •    On the other hand, the NFC tag is under-utilised for those who have access to the display.
  •    There is an age gap in NFC usage – i.e., a higher prevalence among the young customers.

Doing a guerrilla user research

So, to find out the truth, we actually left the office and interviewed bus users!

We kept our questions as simple and open-ended as possible. In order to reflect London’s geographical variations, we selected bus stops at Holborn, Trafalgar Square and Elephant Castle.

So here’s our semi-structured question sample:

Guerilla user research sample question


Our findings

Before moving to the results, here is a quick note regarding our sampling size. Given the scale of our spontaneous field research, small samples may be statistically prone to bias and extreme findings to some extent. However, we hope that our research can shed light on some interesting, qualitative and emotional aspects of user experience on NFC services.

Infographic on NFC

No user experience at all?

Our research suggests that regardless of age, very few respondents have noticed and actually used NFC tags. As the infographic pointed out, some expressed that the tags were too small to notice in the first place. Others showed no interests at NFC tags, as they were happy with apps such as City Mapper and TFL mobile app. Only one person replied that the NFC scan was useful when there’s no timetable panel. Also, from those who have used NFC, negative opinions seemed to dominate their experiences.

Further challenges

  •    Not to mention the confusion (as a couple of people attempted to tap using their fingers), the tags were often overshadowed by the adjacent QR codes.
  •    The challenge not only lies in their visual presence, but also in its CTAs (or the purpose) of the NFC tags.

‘Why would I consider using NFC if I can check bus arrival time on the display?’’ While the tags are more significant at bus stops without timetable display, most of the respondents thought they needed to download an app to use NFC.

  •    Finally, the tags failed to convey another CTA, which was to offer interactive and personalised ads. This, again, could be due to the lack of a note with clear instruction on how and for what?

Opportunities & solutions

  •    How can NFC tags improve the penetration rate? The first obvious answer might be to make the tags appear more prominent and more eye-catching.
  •    To avoid confusion, they might want to increase the number of stickers briefly explaining how accessible NFC is. Currently not every bus stop has the sticker.
  •    How to motivate passengers to use NFC tags? While our research highlighted low NFC prevalence, it is still generally perceived to be more useful than mobile apps.

NFC sticker at London bus stop

So there must be a better way to communicate the accessibility and usefulness of NFC tags for those who don’t have access to the timetable. Perhaps what is needed is clear CTA signs to tell consumers that they only need to tap their phones to access a wide range of services and up-to-date information (such as alternative bus routes and route closures).

  •    Similarly, tags on advertising display need a more prominent CTA conveying the benefits (coupons and offers) clearly, rather than an ambiguous sign saying ‘Interact’. And once again, there needs to be a better explanation of how to interact, who you interact with (TFL? Shops? Brands?), and why.

So here we go, despite our mini field trip we found out some insightful results that can help us understand the challenges and opportunities surrounding NFC tags.

What do you think?

Appnova is a digital agency specialising in web design, UX, eCommerce, branding, digital marketing and social media.

Keep following us on Twitter @appnova and “like” us on Facebook for useful news and tasteful digressions about geeky stuff.

Cover image via.

(By Eleonora & Waka)





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