The long-awaited big FedEx envelope arrived last week. The annual signal that the Formula One United States Grand Prix that my daughter and I attend each year is just a couple of months away. Every year for the last decade we’ve bought our tickets and parking lot passes many months in advance, and then waited anxiously for the envelope to arrive.

Ripping this year’s envelope open I pulled out the parking lot passes and reached my hand in for our tickets.


Where were our grandstand seat tickets for our regular spot?

Confused, I pulled my phone out and scrolled to the original purchase confirmation email. And there it was in small font at the foot of the email:

“Show your tickets on your mobile device at the gate. You must log in to your account manager app to access and manage the tickets.”

Well, that was a disappointment.

How Digital Hurts the Customer Experience

I understand a switch to digital tickets from potentially both an efficiency and environmental point of view — less paper, maybe less onsite staff needed, more control over the secondary market (it’s harder to sell on digital tickets) etc. But it also makes a couple of assumptions, and I thought to some extent devalues the overall experience.

Let’s tackle the last point first. Hanging in my garage are the lanyards and passes from the previous races we attended, along with similar ones from the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and several other high-profile motorsports events. Those physical tickets evoke pleasant and fun memories every time we walk past them; unfortunately, we won’t be able to add this year’s race to that collection. It may be a small thing but having a physical reminder of the event is a part of the overall experience for us.

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Where Digital Can't Keep Up With Print

So, lets’ move on to the other part of the experience, the digital part. “Show your tickets on your mobile device at the gate.” First, this assumes that every customer has, and is comfortable using, a mobile device.

Second, I can tell you from experience that the cell phone signal at far-flung racetracks is not ideal, and is far from reliable, especially on race days when 150,000 people are all trying to access the same few cell towers. I am also assuming that this means that our phones will need to be scanned each time we leave and need to get back to our grandstand seats. A plus for the organizers as they can then map customer movements around the facility.

However, the idea of having to wave my phone around on a repeated basis among heavy crowds is not ideal. A printed ticket on a lanyard around our neck with the Grandstand number on it could be checked with a glance. And if my daughter wants to go off on her own to buy an over-priced T-Shirt, she now has to take my phone with her because the digital tickets are on my device, and not hers, which means we lose the ability to communicate with each other when separated?

The World Doesn't Exist on Mobile Apps

Knowing the potential signal reception issue, I decided to do what I usually do when I get digital tickets for the movies or theater: Take a screen shot and put it in the “Tickets” album I set up on my phone camera app. The first step was to open the Ticket Manager app — which, by the way, didn’t have a link in the confirmation email. Again, there is the assumption that customers are comfortable using the third-party app, can remember what it is called and know their log-in and password details for an app they may use once a year.

Learning Opportunities

I remembered all that and after several clicks navigated my way to my tickets to be greeted with the note “Screenshots don’t work – to avoid Wi-Fi problems on race day, save to your phone’s wallet app.”

We are now on our third app: e-mail, ticket manager and wallet. Is this really easier than pulling a nicely printed piece of card out of an envelope?

As I mentioned, I’m generally happy with digital tickets for things like the cinema and theater. These come as a QR code in an email and are easy to capture. But for something as special as this event, did the process need to be so complex?

My blow-by-blow account of me downloading my digital tickets may make me seem like a bit of a luddite — but it got me thinking. For whom was this move to a digital experience made? Was it just for the convenience of the business, and did it have a detrimental effect on the actual experience? What for us is usually a happy experience — pulling those tickets out of the envelope — became a morning of frustration.

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Tech for Tech's Sake Is Not Good for CX

I recently read a fascinating book on the concept of smart cities, "Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias," by John Lornic. The book included the observation that “technology has a place in cities, but that place is not everywhere.”

I think the same could be said for the customer experience. The digital experience has a lot of benefits but it isn’t a catch-all solution.

Are we creating digital experiences just because we have the technology to do so? Maybe for the future we need to think less of the technology and more about the actual “experience.”

It’s important that we recognize when digital gets in the way of the experience itself.

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