Think about the entire customer experience

While I was ordering at a fast-food chain recently, I experienced a bad customer experience. The chain had implemented a new Point-of-Sale system which utilized a fingerprint reader for when the store manager might need to override a transaction. It was peak trading time and the franchise owner was hovering around front-of-house, I assumed to help if there were any issues with the new system. The cashier needed an override and the store manager was trying to use the fingerprint scanner but it wasn’t reading his fingerprint. The owner, watching this, was getting frustrated and came over. He immediately blamed the store manager for having dirty fingers. He then proceeded to take the store manager’s hand in his and started vigorously wiping his fingers with a cloth. After this, he pressed the store manager’s fingers hard against the reader and moved it around to try get it to read the fingerprint. After an excruciating minute of this, he eventually did a manual override, apologizing to me for the delay with that “you can’t get good staff these days!” look in his face.

There are so many problems with this scenario.

Firstly, an owner that thinks it’s ok to demean and belittle his staff like this, especially (but not only) in front of customers should have his franchise license revoked.

Secondly, the owner assumed that the system was correct and the human was wrong. In this case, with a new system being rolled out, things are bound to go wrong. Biometrics are notoriously fickle and immediately blaming the store manager will most likely make the store manager less confident with the new system. The accuracy of the biometric equipment should’ve been tested in the environment it was going to be used, especially in the case of a fast-food franchise and a fingerprint scanner!

Thirdly, it was clear that there had been inadequate training on the new system. The cashiers and store managers were still very tentative on the system and all orders took a bit longer to process. It was peak hour and the queues were backing up. The staff should’ve been trained sufficiently before the new system went live.

When companies develop new systems to support their business, too often they neglect to think about the entire end-to-end customer experience journey. A system is more than just the screens and the interface. In this case the customer didn’t even interact with the system but it nonetheless had an impact. When a new system is implemented, customers are generally understanding that everything might not run smoothly, but that’s exactly why you need to increase your overall customer experience to compensate. Making your customer uncomfortable by getting angry with your staff and not knowing what your system isn’t working isn’t helping your cause any. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to understand what could go wrong and what you could do to fix that, before it happens.

Back to my future

Today I started my engine to travel along a new path. My passion for building software that solves problems was too strong to ignore and so today I join ThoughWorks to continue my quest to help the world by building better software. I’ve long been an advocate of Agile development practices, using it to improve the software development practices at White Wall Web. ThoughtWorks has always been on the forefront of Agile and custom software development so I believe the match is a great one. ThoughtWorks also focuses on positive social change and to rings very true for me.

I’ll be focusing on understanding clients needs and issues and then creating highly usable and simple solutions to address these needs and issues. Clear and simply user experience is a major driver for me and I’ll be pushing this agenda hard.

I’m grateful that the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve worked with and the clients I’ve had have brought me to this new juncture. The future is bright!

The path of least resistance

It’s become quite clear to me that the more I use technology, the more I just want it to work. Reliability and ease-of-use are extremely important factors for me. If I start my mail app, it must start quickly and it must immediately connect and send mail, without problems. It must also be clear and quick to write a mail and new mail should arrive as quickly as possible.

Focus is another important consideration. I want to be focused on the task as hand and get that completed in the shortest time possible. I don’t want endless notifications interrupting me and breaking me away from the immediacy of my current task.

This is why I’m increasingly choosing my iPad over my Mac. My iPad is always on, even when it’s off. If doesn’t go into a sleep mode that it takes a couple of seconds to wake from. Apps work reliably and connectivity is never a consideration. It is connected all the time. I’m having endless problems with my MacBook and yes, I could probably sort it out by reinstalling the problematic apps, or reconfiguring the network settings or a variety of other actions, but the point is that I don’t even have to think about these actions on my iPad.

Yes, there is functionality that is either missing or slightly more difficult to get to on the iPad but I’m willing to make these sacrifices for the convenience and lowering of my stress levels. In my early IT career, I was like every other geek that wanted the biggest, most badass desktop with the fastest processor, most RAM and awesomely powerful graphics card, but when you realize that these factors mean increasingly less and less in a world where we just need to communicate easily and quickly, you start seeing the folly in that line of thinking. There will always be the use cases for the best, most advanced tech, but increasingly it isn’t relevant in the everyday workplace.

So for me the argument isn’t iOS vs Android, but rather Desktop vs Mobile OS. I’ve made my choice.

Are you being loyal to your customers?

loyaltyI love the concept of loyalty cards. I have a wad in my wallet and I make sure I use them religiously – saving money on something you’re going to buy anyway is a no-brainer. However, it’s important for both the customer and the vendor that the mechanics of the loyalty card are carefully considered. A loyalty card implies that, if the customer is loyal to the company, the company repays that loyalty  to the customer in a clearly defined and consistent way. It’s this consistency which is sometimes lacking.

Vida e Caffè is a great example of a company that gets this right. They have a clear and consistent loyalty program – swipe your card for any purchase and and get 5% of that purchase back, which can be used towards any future purchase. Simple. All you need to do is remember to keep your card on you and swipe. (Incidentally, they also give you a free coffee during your birthday month – a nice touch.) In case you REALLY don’t understand how it works, they even explain everything clearly on their website.

Kauai on the other hand, is not simple or clear. Kauai has 2 separate loyalty programs, one for smoothies and one for coffee. Both of them give you a free beverage for every 12 beverages of that kind. (buy 12 smoothies and you get 1 smoothie free) Sounds simple enough. But wait, there’s more. To participate in the smoothie loyalty program, you need a blue smoothie card and you must collect blue smoothie stickers. If you want to join the coffee loyalty program, you take a brown card and collect brown stickers. 2 separate programs, 1 company, 1 customer. This is inconvenient and makes my wallet bulge a bit, but as a loyalty card fan, I’m willing to deal with it.  However, the devil is in the detail, and this is where the loyalty scheme falls apart.

I really like my coffee. A large Americano is my standard fare after gym at the Kauai while I start my day and catch up on emails. A large Americano is R2 more than the regular, but the extra caffeine fix I get is worth it. Sometimes I’ll splash out and also have a smoothie, usually a large Peanut Butter Bomb with the extra protein. Yummy. The large is R4 more than the standard.

Fast forward 12 coffees stickers and 12 smoothie stickers later. I’m at the counter gleefully about to redeem my cards for a free large Americano and a free large Peanut Butter Bomb but I’m told that isn’t the deal. Not so lucky. The free coffee is limited to a regular coffee. In fact, it’s a regular Americano, Cappuccino or Latte. Don’t even think about the flat white – that’s not included in the promotion! A similar restriction is placed on the free smoothie. These are limited not only to regular and medium sized smoothies (why both and not all I can’t understand), but also to specific smoothie categories, namely the “Fruit”, “Berry” and “Delight” smoothies. It completely excludes “Power” smoothies, the category my beloved Peanut Butter Bomb falls into!

Let’s do the math here. A Peanut Bomb is R45.90 while the most expensive free smoothie you can get  is R 29.90. So I’m only getting around 65% free of the value of what I have been spending. However, someone who only buys the cheapest smoothie at R 19,90 can redeem their smoothie card for a free medium smoothie worth R29,90, which is a massive 150% more than what they were spending! I wonder if Kauai has considered this in their budgeting?

The coffee situation is similar, but you can score, if you are willing to compromise. A large Americano is R17.90, while a regular is R15,90. If I want to stick to an Americano, I will only score about 88% of my free coffee, but if I’m willing to have a Latte or Cappuccino instead I get the full 100% free.

This system is neither simple to understand, nor fair to the the customer, who expects that if they buy 12 of an item, they should get one of those for free!

The bottom line here is that while I’m willing to be loyal to Kauai and buy the products that I like, they aren’t willing to reciprocate and be loyal to me. While other great companies have got it right and reward the customer loyalty based on actual financial spend, Kauai only rewards their customers on their quite specific terms. This makes the taste of the coffee quite bitter, and the Peanut Butter Bomb smoothie leaves my stomach grumbling with unhappiness.

Getting to grips with a new system

I was lucky enough to observe on-the-job user training this passed week. The best part of it was that the parties involved didn’t know that I was observing the interaction from a UX perspective and therefore it happened very naturally on their part. It was a David Attenborough moment. The system in question was a POS system at a local medical centre pharmacy. The new employee was being guided through the steps needed to ring up my prescription. The item was scanned and then the trainer verbally stepped the trainee through the process:

“Escape, escape, escape. Caps Lock must be on. No, Caps Lock. Right, then ok. No, you don’t want to print the labels”, and so on and on.

3 things shout this process concerned me: 1) Why would Caps Lock be required for anything other than actual capitalization of words; 2) why is the Escape key used here to progress through a process and not to reverse or step back through the process, and 3) why does the system ask if labels need to be printed when the process is that the labels are printed in the back office by the pharmacist?

Even though POS systems are used in high traffic areas and involve physical interactions with customers, they are still often clunky and cryptic, using outdated interfaces and hardware. Large retails firms understand this problem and have invested heavily in highly efficient and usable systems, but smaller companies are still struggling with badly designed and complex systems, even though there are some really great new systems available.

It’s often difficult enough learning a new job and it’s associated norms, practice, and processes but when a system bucks the trend and uses keys for functions that are not traditionally their standard functions, it makes the learning process much more difficult, as well as increasing the chance of errors. The confidence of the new user is also eroded away as they cannot be sure that what they assume is a key’s function will actually be correct.

Help your staff and customers out by moving to simpler and more user-friendly systems!

The challenges creating virtual representations of physical layouts

The way that Apple represents a physical space in a virtual environment is really starting to bug me more and more. With the advent of IOS 7 and the heightened ability to see apps visually next to one another in a virtual space has made the need for a rethink more urgent.

Switching between apps may seem easy, but depending on how you switch between apps, the apps change their order based on which one you’re using at the time. This was slightly annoying in the previous versions of iOS, but it becomes just downright frustrating in iOS 7, where zooming out (4 finger swipe up) shows you a thumbnail of the apps that you’ve used in the last while. The app that you select from this list then moves to the beginning of this list. If you want to go back to the app you were previously using, the intuitive motion would be the 4 finger swipe from left to right, but instead of just leaving the app in the current position and making it active, iOS moves this app to the beginning of the list so there are no apps to the left! You have to swipe from right to left to get to the next app, or the one you were using last.

app switching issues
Why change the order of things?

I question the way that Apple implemented their ‘multitasking’ in the first place. You can only work on one app at a time in iOS anyway, so why have the paradigm of the home screen with its static app layout and then also provide the user with a counterintuitive Multi-tasking arrangement of apps that are currently ‘in use’? How could a user be expected to remember the order in which they last used their apps? If I’m switching between apps on my iPad, I usually only need to switch between 2 apps to do basic copy and paste tasks. Anything more than that becomes tedious on an iPad and I’ll usually resort to using my laptop.

IOS is supposed to keep your state when switching to another app, so why not simply keep the recently used apps in the order in which you used them?

I would really like to see a more consistent handling of physical space translates into virtual environments. This can be the make or break for interfaces. No matter how unique or innovative virtual interfaces are, as humans, we have specific ways (barring cultural and a few other exceptions) that we expect to interact with the world around us. If the order or placement of items in a virtual world is not what we expect, we’ll be confused and less likely to use the interface, or reach the desired outcome.

I’m also keen to start looking into a new paradigm for mobile (and indeed other devices) OS design. The current home screen and app list feels very siloed and is making less and less sense to me.

From clumsy to graceful: interfacing in the age of ubiquitous computing

Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing
Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing

I’ve recently started reading Everywhere: The Dawning of the Age of Ubiquitous Computing It’s a collection of theses posturing on the forms, interfaces, implications of an era where computing power is woven into the fabric of our everyday existence. There are some interesting theories and examples in the book and although the author doesn’t try to explain the concepts or put forward exactly how it will all work, look or fit together, it certainly makes me stop and think about these exact points.Continue reading “From clumsy to graceful: interfacing in the age of ubiquitous computing”

Try not get in the way


Possibly one of the strangest and most annoying designs in iOS 6 is the notification overlay, as shown in the image above. Annoying, because one cannot get rid of it once it appears – one must wait a few seconds until it flips away, back into obscurity. Strange, because it doesn’t follow the conventions of the rest of the interface. It animates into view as if it were printed upside down on the back of the foreground layer. No doubt someone thought that this was a cool animation, and yes, it is a nice effect, but it is just that – an effect. The multitasking paradigm that iOS adopts is that of layers stacked one on top of each other or layers next to each other. Having these 2 spatial paradigms competing is tricky enough. Take for instance the 2 different ways you can switch between apps in the iPad. First, you can double click the home button (or four-finger swipe upward) to reveal the last few apps that have been used. When you select an app, the animation is one of a the new app as a page being brought to the top of the stack and the old app being sent behind (although its not quite clear exactly clear where in the stack it’s being sent to, but that’s another topic altogether.) The second paradigm is that of the apps being laid out next to one another, with the active app showing in the screen and the previously used app to right of the screen. You can use a four-fingered gesture to drag the app to the right into the viewport.

In order to use these 2 paradigms interchangeably, one has to hold in ones mind the image of the apps being stacked on top of one another and at the same time laid side by side next to one another! Why confuse the user?!

The point I’m getting to is that Apple introduced yet another physical model that the one now needs to hold in ones head – that of a notification that cuts itself a little rectangle at the top of the apps viewport and forces itself upon you without warning and without a way to dismiss it. You may think that it’s not so bad – it’s only a few seconds. However, those few seconds can totally disrupt your flow. In the case I’ve highlighted above, I was drawing when the notification appeared. I was about to change tools but had to wait for the notification to disappear – it was obscuring the toolbar. Often I’ve tried to grasp at the corner of a button sticking out from under a notification only to be switched to the app doing the notification. Frustrating and flow wrecking.

I’ve often questioned the necessity for notifications interrupting my activity in my current app. One of the great pleasures of using my iPad is that I have one app and one app only open in front of me when I’m using it. Mono-tasking. Multi-tasking is not possible for humans anyway, and certainly not productive. I write better on my iPad, mostly because I can focus on the single task at hand. Notifications, when they were first introduced to iOS, were seen as a necessity, highlighting activity in an app that was still busy, but not visible, bringing to your attention an occurrence that was deemed important. This very model of working is something I, and many others, question as a fundamental problem of the way we work in our modern lives. Apple has not made this better, rather they’ve made it worse. Not only does it visually disturb the current viewport by tearing the top part of your screen, but it doesn’t allow you to dismiss it! It’s as if a colleague, seeing that you’re deeply engrossed in a task, walks over to your desk, picks up your keyboard, holds it for 5 seconds then puts it down and walks off again.

The issues highlighted in this article may be solved in the next version of iOS, version 7 and hopefully they will be solved gracefully. I haven’t had the chance to investigate the new OS yet, but will certainly do so when I can and feed back with my opinions. Here’s hoping that they move closer to a single, more unified model of the OS.

Get the basics right – address your users correctly

At least get my name right
At least get my name right!

This is a rookie error. We all understand that a system will need to send out a number of automated notifications, but they should be as personalised as possible to carefully mask the fact that they were programatically generated. Using the format “[surname, first-name]” is extremely impersonal. No humans would communicate like this. Just call me Zayne! However, I guess I should be grateful that at least they spelled it correctly…