Self-serving machines and the human antidote

Self-serving machines and the human antidote

It was seven o’clock in the morning. We were four self-service screens and four user experience failures into our journey.

It didn’t help that there hadn’t been enough time for coffee before my partner and I left the house, but even fully caffeinated it would have been hard to ignore the feeling all this technology intended to smooth our journey through the airport had rather lost its way.

We’d drawn our first blank with the terminals which print baggage tickets. The queue snaked around the departures area, creeping forward at a snail’s pace as each group of passengers struggled to make sense of the interface. About half of each person’s screen time in front of the machine seemed to be taken up with dismissing interstitials tempting them to spend more on legroom and extra miles. Three out of every four passengers needed assistance to complete their session on the supposedly ‘automated’ systems. The small number of staff on-hand looked increasingly fraught as the queues mounted.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to airports. I can’t remember the last time I visited a supermarket where at least one customer in front of me didn’t need assistance with the self-service checkout.

Even the machines themselves seemed to want out. One of the screens abruptly refused to stop serving. It terminated the customer’s session and simply displayed the word ‘CLOSED’. In the smallest nod to etiquette, it continued to offer a choice of language options, just in case its message wasn’t clear.

Strikes two, three and four came courtesy of a single attempt to purchase a salad, sandwich and bottle of water for the flight. There was a line of three self-service checkout stations, each equipped with barcode scanner and a slot to swipe your credit card. The first crashed with the cryptic message ‘*Service – store log-in’. The second wouldn’t acknowledge multiple swipes of a credit card. We were brusquely moved to the third and final pay station by an assistant whose mood seemed to reflect an existential doubt that her career was now in thrall to machines with a mind of their own.

It took two attempts, but finally the third machine acknowledged it had taken our money from the same credit card its digital colleague had refused just a few seconds earlier.

We went in search of coffee and found ourselves sitting at ‘Saison’, a pseudo-French bistro with the dubious distinction of being one of the few places in Newark airport which will serve you coffee in a real coffee cup. Like every other food outlet in Newark Terminal C, the tables at Saison are divided by two centrally-mounted iPads, creating a physical and metaphorical barrier between you and your travelling companions. I’ve written about them before, in a previous travel grump entitled ‘Antisocial technology‘.

My partner and I sat opposite each other, staring into the abyss of advertising flashing up on the screens. We tapped and swiped away screens tempting us with Amazon-style ‘people who bought this also liked this’ offers until it seemed we’d each done enough to order our cups of coffee.

As if to emphasise the sense it was every man for himself, our coffees were split into separate tabs – one for her side of the table, one for mine. She won the prize by correctly guessing which of the several credit card swipe slots was connected to the iPads. Just in case you ever find yourself in the same café, I won’t spoil the challenge by revealing the answer, but I will share a top tip for fellow travellers: it’s not the one closest to you or the one which faces you…

I was done, at least until the caffeine arrived.

I picked up my napkin from the table and draped it over the iPad. My partner did the same and, in a testament to team work, the combined thickness of the two serviettes was just enough to block out the carousel of upselling which continued to vie for our attention even after we’d placed our order.

Relief arrived in very human form. A waitress walked over and saw the makeshift cover we’d erected over the screens. She smiled, reached down and adjusted something on the base of the what we’d assumed to be immovable clamps holding the tablets. The screens toppled forward – felled – and lay flat and quiet on the table.

“You’re lovely…” My partner said to her.

She picked up one of the napkins and dropped it back on top of the defeated pile of tablets.

“I try,” she replied with a smile. “My husband doesn’t think so, but I try…”

There was something in the proficiency with which she took down the digital wall that suggested this was far from the first time she’d performed this service for diners in her café.

Our coffees came and we found ourselves talking again – of the trip, of the flight to come – with all the subtleties of eyes and expressions which make conversations real. We had our phones, of course – to let us know about our departure gate or to look at a photo together – but they were a choice, and mostly we chose to leave them face down. They augmented, but did not interrupt.

As I sat on the flight, I reflected that more often it is the elements of a customer journey which are hardest to measure that make the greatest difference.

There’s an old adage that you can not change what you can not measure, but what was the value of that waitresses’ smile or her tone? What about the brevity of her intervention, when she correctly judged that what we wanted most was just a little space? What about her willingness to give us just a snippet of confidence and intimacy by sharing a little of her own life?

‘Mood button’ survey machines – with three or four options ranging from green happy face to red sad face – are becoming ubiquitous at airports. There is no possible way the data they generate could tell a company anything useful about our particular airport experience. Nor would increased profitability be a reliable indicator. A company could boost profit by cutting some of the expenses which cost it more – like trained, motivated staff – and replacing them with cheaper, poorly designed machines. Travellers in airports, after all, are a captive audience.

However, as an advocate for user-centred design, I believe it is possible to find a better kind of growth – in both company profitability and customer satisfaction.

It starts with someone in a company deciding that listening, and listening hard, is their single greatest priority. Not just listening to profitability or digital metrics or even survey data. Instead, listening like a grandparent listens to stories of their grandchildren’s lives. When you listen with hunger and revel in the details, you discover nuances that can unlock a new type of growth. Investing in new technology is likely part of that process, but it is probably better spent on mostly invisible elements which enable people to deliver higher levels of service.

A wall of new screens may look like tangible progress, but even assuming they have good UIs (and most don’t), they’re usually customer-facing in name only. In reality, their premise is often an inward-facing motivation to expedite processes with too little thought for how they relate to the reality of customers’ lives.

Perhaps key is the decision to listen first before deciding what it is you really need to measure?

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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