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Coins have two levels of interfaces: a physical interface (their size, shape and weight) -- usable by vending machines and to certain extent by people with long-established habits of using these coins; and a visual interface -- used by people with less experience at coin-handling, such as tourists and just regular folks who don't use coins too often.

Now, the physical interface is "set in stone", and usually less important. Of course, it would be nice if coin's size was proportional to its value, but that's not always the case due to historical reasons. And changing current standards of sizes/weights of coins is extremely costly due to existing infrastructure of coin-operated machines.

The visual interface is completely another story. The single most important thing each coin must show is its denomination. Not pretty pictures. Nor ugly pictures. Nor head-shots of some random celebrities. Nor other nonsense.

Here's what I would consider a usable design: euro coins: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 1, 2

Chinese coins aren't perfect, but still usable -- if I ever go to China, I could still count my change without knowing a single Chinese character: chinese coins: 1/2, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50

Well, and here's what we are stuck with in US: us coins: one cent, five cents, one dime, quarter dollar, half dollar, one dollar

If you don't know English, you're screwed (even though a considerable part of population is actually Spanish-speaking). If you do know English, but never used these coins before, then it'll just take forever to count anything. If you are an American, and you used these coins your entire life and think they are perfectly fine — then see which of these two arithmetic problems you can solve faster: us coins problem       euro coins problem


What I don't understand is WHY. Why there are no attempts to improve coins design. It's not like the QWERTY keyboard or miles/Fahrenheits issue, where users habits outweigh any possible usability gains. I don't believe that changing the eagle to "25" on a quarter would suddenly create nation-wide confusion...

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Related fact: the UK changed its coinage in 2010 and replaced a design which used figures (and words) with one which used only words. Both forms co-exist, but a similar argument to the one in this question was advanced about the new design. –  Andrew Leach Jun 29 '13 at 7:16
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I find the Euro coinage dreadful (particularly the 10,20, 50 cents which are far too similar) . UK coinage is much better because the coins are much more physically distinct: there's no need to try to read the value on a coin as all the coins are physically different. So I'd argue that the Euro coins ARE NOT a usable design. –  PhillipW Jun 29 '13 at 8:15
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Just wanted to show appreciation for your phenomenal effort of laying out the question, reaching the climax with a bang (the US coinage deficiencies) and ending with the dual math problems. Great job! (And I am a United States-ian.) –  Michael Sorens Jun 29 '13 at 21:52
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Although I really sympathize with the question, I voted to close it. I don't think anyone can really answer "why" unless they work for the Federal Reserve (or its counterparts). In any case they probably don't hang out here. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 30 '13 at 5:21
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The question already has 21 plus votes, a well-thought out answer regarding US coins and another one with actual documentary evidence regarding UK coins (so much better than most answers on this site, which are unfortunately full of unjustified opinions). Putting this particular question on hold now seems silly. –  Gaël Laurans Jul 1 '13 at 16:18
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closed as primarily opinion-based by Vitaly Mijiritsky, Benny Skogberg, greenforest, JohnGB, Matt Obee Jul 1 '13 at 16:11

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

2 Answers

The U.S. Mint is responsible for designing coins and bills, so I contacted them for an answer. No answer yet, but I'll keep you guys posted. :-)

I understand the inherent desire to make things more clear, but there are things about the U.S. currency that makes it less necessary to have numerals imprinted on them compared to other countries' currencies:

  • The U.S. currency essentially has just four coins: 1 Cent, 5 Cent, 10 Cent, and 25 Cent. (dollar coin is rare, and has numeral. Half dollar coin is not even in circulation). Compare this to Euro and Pound that both have eight different coins, Yen and Yuan that both have six.

  • The most valuable U.S. coin (Quarter) is only worth $0.25. Euro's most valuable coin is $2.60. Pound's most valuable coin is $3.00. Yen's most valuable coin is whopping $5.00.

This means, tourists don't use coins in the U.S. as much as they would in other countries. Instead, they would rely more on $1+ which are paper bills with numbers clearly printed on them.

But even if they were to use coins, the mental cost in figuring out coin's value is low since there are only four coins. And the financial cost of mistakenly giving wrong coin is negligible ($0.25 - $0.01 = $0.24) compared to say Yen (500 Yen - 1 Yen = 499 Yen = $5.00)

Considering that all coins (except dime) were redesigned in the past few years, the U.S. Mint had plenty of opportunities to put numerals on them if they felt that there was serious usage problems among tourists or the U.S. population that impede commerce. But let's see if we hear from the Mint. :-)

So in short, while it would be nice to have numerals on the U.S. coins, it doesn't pose anywhere near the same amount of usability problems or risk as other currencies.


Posting Yen and Pound for reference. Oh, the joy of Pound coins... and you thought the dollar coins were bad. ;-)

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As someone pointed out up thread, the UK coinage has been changed recently so that LESS of the coins have numbers on: of a random sample of coins sitting on my desk only the 20p; 2p and 1p now actually have digits for numbers. The very distinct differences in the sizes and colours of UK coins are also demonstrated above. –  PhillipW Jun 30 '13 at 21:18
    
I'm not sure about the point of including the front of all the coins. British coins have featured the monarch on the front since around the seventh century. –  Andrew Leach Jul 1 '13 at 6:42
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Note that the paper dollar bills suffer from the inverse problem. While clearly showing their value as a numeral, they otherwise look very, very similar to each other. Especially for those not dealing with these notes regularly. Compare that to how notes elsewhere often both differ in size as well as in color. Euro notes, though ugly, are quite usable in that respect, but Costa Rica shows the same can be done resulting in beautiful notes... –  André Jul 1 '13 at 7:33
    
+ 1 for US paper money looking too similar ! –  PhillipW Jul 1 '13 at 9:31
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@rk. An old U.S. law required that all coins reflect the value of metal used to create them by weight. Dime used to be made of silver, which is much more expensive than metals used to make nickel. The law no longer exists, but the coin sizes have remained unchanged. –  Jung Lee Jul 1 '13 at 16:00
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As far as the Royal Mint is concerned, they are reported as saying (with my emphasis)...

It's the only work of art that every member of the general public touches every day, that is important to the nation's way of life.

We had to make sure that the coin design was true to the heritage of British coins and gave fresh inspiration and modernity to something that has been in existence for 40 years.

So it's down to design. The space around the engraved image is used for the value, and lettering works best. A digit would either have to be tiny or intrude into the engraved design. [The 5p piece in the centre of the set is slightly different, but the words run along the horizontal line. A digit 5 wouldn't really fit anywhere.]

Image of 2008 revision of UK coinage

However, figures only appeared regularly on British coins from decimalisation anyway. Prior to 1967 (when the first 5p and 10p coins were minted, replacing the shilling and two-shilling pieces), words were used:

Image of 1961 English shilling

You have to go back quite some way to find a digit on a coin, and at that stage all coins were circular and of a similar size.

Image of 1885 threepenny bit

The user experience is tailored to those who are using the device [a coin in this case] most often. UX is not a primary concern of what is stamped on the faces of a coin. In the UK, each coin is recognisable by colour, size and edge milling, and for those who are handling them day in, day out, no other identification is actually necessary. Of course, as noted in the question here, that's not ideal for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Afterthought: It's probably worth adding that in 1967–71, when the entire coinage system was changed with decimalisation, all users of the coinage were unfamiliar with the new coins, so easy identification was vital for everyone. Numbers were included in the new decimal designs. After forty years, they are no longer as necessary.

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At decimalisation the coins were actually labelled 'new pence' to avoid confusion with the previous non-decimal numbering system: catawiki.co.uk/catalog/coins/countries/united-kingdom/… –  PhillipW Jul 1 '13 at 21:01
    
Yes, they were; but (relevant here) they also got numerals which hadn't appeared in the recent past. "New pence" disappeared after ten years or so. –  Andrew Leach Jul 1 '13 at 22:12
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