Christmas decoration on a table
PHOTO: Nathan Anderson

It all started with a new Christmas decoration my wife had set her heart on. She’d been back and forth wondering if she should buy it. Last weekend, we found ourselves back in the store, where she eventually decided it would be ideal for a space on the hallway table.

And so we found ourselves at the register, ready to pay for the new decoration. As is the case at most stores these days, the transaction was processed through a payment terminal card reader. You know, the sort where you can either insert or slide your card, or sometimes even wave your phone over it to pay for goods. It was no different from the hundreds of other terminals that we have encountered when shopping: In addition to the places where you could physically insert your card, it had a nice screen, a keypad and an electronic touch pen. 

All went well until my wife got to a screen asking her to confirm the amount. The green OK icon on the screen was an exact image of the green OK button on the keypad, so she pressed the button on the keypad. Several times. Nothing happened. I tried it too. Still nothing happened. At which point the sales associate smiled and said, “Oh, everyone does that. You need to press the OK on the touchscreen.”

An Experience Problem

There was no text on the screen to indicate that it was active, so why in that case was the OK icon made to look exactly like the corresponding button on the keypad? Or why wasn’t the system designed to accept input from either the screen or the keypad? 

If “everyone” tries the keypad first, then you have an experience problem.

Two steps later, after my wife had inserted her debit card, the screen flashed up a question asking what sort of card it was. Why didn’t it recognize the card from the data swipe? The list of options it gave for the card type were clearly being driven from a backend financial system and the terms it used had no relevance to the average shopper. The sales associate had a cheat-sheet that allowed her to identify the correct response needed for the average bank-issued debit card. 

If you are presenting everyday consumers with professional jargon that an employee has to translate, then you have an experience problem.

Focus on the Needs of the User

As these sort of encounters tend to do, our shopping trip got me thinking about customer experience technology. 

It used to be that most technology interfaces with a customer interaction point were system-specific: One type of action being served and captured by one piece of technology. However, as the customer experience technology stack has evolved, we now have single interaction points that are either driven by, or feed, multiple backend systems. We also have, as is the case with the payment terminal, interfaces being developed that combine different ways of entering responses or acknowledging actions. 

When to use which action, and which technology to use, can be a difficult trade-off, but more often than not we find those decisions are being driven by the limitations of the technology rather than the needs of the user. By the time my wife had finished paying for her decoration, she had used the screen, the keypad and the pen. Why did that transaction need three separate types of action, when it all could have been done on a touchscreen?

Experience Should Inform Design

I’ve long been a believer that system limitations shouldn’t drive the experience. Rather, the experience should inform the system’s design. 

As the technology stack continues to evolve, we shouldn’t be throwing new technologies at individual problems, we should be taking a holistic outside-in view of how those new solutions will impact the way our customers do business with us. I realize that may not always be practical, but it’s a philosophy we should strive for when developing and implementing customer experience technology.

This is the season when we get to wish for a better world, and I’d like us to move toward one where the customer experience is a seamless, frictionless affair driven by great innovative technology.

By the way, my wife was right: The new decoration looks perfect on the hallway table. Happy holidays!