Comparators and metaphors

October 14th, 2016

I’m constantly amazed at the use of some quite random objects as comparators typically when describing size and scale. You know the sort of thing, “it’s the equivalent of two ‘Olympic’ size swimming pools”, or “it’s the length of 10 double decker buses parked end to end”. I’m not entirely sure that these references are at all helpful, as how many of us could visualise and compare something to the size of a swimming pool, let alone an ‘Olympic’ size swimming pool which is traditionally longer, and their scarcity probably means less people have actually seen one! We rarely see a double-decker bus in our area anymore, but if we did then it would apparently take 470 of them to fill the deck of the new aircraft carrier that’s being built for the Roya Navy! I get the point of contextualising what is being described but the comparator should make it easier to visualise and understand and not worse.

A similar thing happens with metaphors (i.e. a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else). Carol Kirkwood (BBC Breakfast Weather presenter) prefaces any Met Office weather warning when using the red, green, and amber traffic light metaphor as a proxy for the severity of the weather, but then completely devalues the benefit afforded by the use of this metaphor by having to describe that the ‘Amber’ warning is one step up from the ‘Green’ warning, yet not a severe as the ‘Red’ warning.

Boarding Aircraft

August 28th, 2012

Anyone who as an interest in business processes and has spent endless hours in airports will know that the procedures we are forced through when travelling (in particular by air) are laborious and inefficient, and many a time I have redesigned the processes in my mind to be more efficient, traveller friendly, and time saving. So I read with interest the article on a faster way of boarding planes could save time and money (“Please be seated”, The Economist, September 3rd 2011). Of course to many of us this would seem a good way to proceed, and I’m sure I remember Lufthansa undertaking trials of boarding window seats first (although not in alternate rows) more than twenty years ago. However this approach is fatally flawed as it assumes that passengers have the will and ability to be compliant and disregards completely human nature. Why does Dr Steffen think that the lure of making passengers lives easier would be sufficient incentive to change their behaviour when the very same passengers can’t stand behind the yellow line around the baggage carousel when they retrieve their luggage; or think we can stop those that have perfected ‘silent’ seat belt unbuckling to ensure they can be first out of their seat to get to the overhead lockers; and imagine the anxiety of them not being able to stow their luggage in their preferred overhead locker near their seat as the space had been taken up by earlier boarding passengers? It also raises an interesting issue of families being asked to board separately which could be a challenge when small children are travelling. Great idea if it wasn’t for the passengers!

The more information we have the less information we have…

November 1st, 2010

Driving on the M1 Southbound I came across an electronic overhead sign that read:





The intention of this sign was to inform motorway users that it would take15 minutes to reach the M6 motorway should they travel the 17 miles by going via the M69 which connects both routes.

By being able to travel this 17 mile journey in 15 minutes assumes that your speed must be averaging just over 60 mph (i.e. approximately a mile per minute). Ordinarily this would have been very useful information, but at that particular time the overhead gantry speed signs were flashing ’40′ MPH, and the actual speed, due to SWOT (sheer weight of traffic) and congestion at a major confluence of two motorways, was less that 10 mph. It made me reflect on the incongruence of these signs, and question what was the point of an ‘informational’ device that is clearly giving incorrect information? What I really needed to know was the ETA under the road conditions that prevailed at that time and surely the sign should be dynamic and take its inputs from what is actually happening on the motorway in order that it gives accurate and helpful information?

Having recently acquired a BlackBerry the immediacy and ‘always on’ nature of information, when you have constant access to it as opposed to the natural time delay until the next time you fire-up your laptop, has heightened my awareness to the inappropriateness of some of the information we receive. Three examples:

Amazon sending me special offers to purchase Dan Browns new book ‘The Symbol’ when I had already pre ordered it from them several weeks earlier and was expecting it to be shipped automatically when available. So although Amazon can tell me what books ‘others who also bought this book’ have purchased they can’t recognise what I have already purchased. Or Pink Elephant Business Parking at Heathrow Airport sending special offers for parking but not recognising that my car was already in their safe keeping at Heathrow T5 Business Parking having been pre-booked several weeks earlier and their number plate recognition system had automatically matched my arrival at the car park to the pre-arranged booking.

But the most annoying incident was when trying to buy foreign currency from Travelex on-line using my Netbook computer. I got to the part of the transaction that uses 3D security but the pop up screen requiring me to enter my VISA security details was ‘pinned’ in a fixed position on the screen. Scrolling down didn’t reveal the foot of the box containing the ‘send’ button. After aborting the first transaction I realised that I could change the zoom level on internet explorer to show more content in the screen and hence reveal the whole box. On repeating the process at the pop up screen I changed the zoom level to reveal the button, only then to get the unhelpful message that my ‘card could not be processed‘. Could not be processed now, for ever, or was this because I had aborted the first transaction, or was there a problem with my card? Typical of on-line sites these days there are no telephone numbers published for you to make an enquiry so I rang a 24 hour Visa number to find out. Several calls later and only having threatened to cancel my card did I discover that Visa had rejected the transaction as, what appears to me as quite normal card behaviour, had conformed to a pattern typical of card fraudsters, i.e. that I had made a small transaction (£4 cardholder not present transaction to Birmingham Library for a document search), and was then trying a much larger transaction (to purchase foreign currency) so they had put a ‘stop’ on my card, very useful as I was just to depart to the US on vacation! What is the point of the security number, and the additional 3D security if it isn’t to validate my identity? How long before the validation requires validation and then further validation, and how do you know if your typical card use imitates fraudulent usage patterns?

Now for those of us who have worked in operational roles we can no doubt rationalise these situations with simple explanations. In the motorway example the two systems are probably quite separate and rely on an operator sitting somewhere in a control room, or worse two operators in two separate control rooms, making a cerebral connection between the motorway conditions and the messages that need to be displayed, but this didn‘t happen. For Amazon and Pink Elephant an extract of those clients who had already placed orders or bought their services should have been run and removed from the mailing list, but once again this didn’t happen. And finally a set of rules applied to a purchasing transaction procedure should also be matched with all the correct security information having been provided – but once again it didn’t.

No matter how you view these incidents they are the subject of process or service failures, and when viewed through the lens of the customer or end user they just don’t work, albeit for all manner of rational reasons be they technological, human, procedural, or design. Their consequences, while in these examples might initially appear minor, I believe could have far reaching ramifications for potentially both the end user/customer or the organisation providing the goods or service. The motorway sign we now no longer trust or believe is the one we ignore that tells us of fog ahead that has caused an accident we are hurtling towards.

Customer anthropology

March 15th, 2010

There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the Blues Brothers film where Jake Blues is being released from the ‘Joliet Correctional Center’. He is escorted to a collection point at which he is reunited with his personal belongings. He ignores the sign on the wall informing inmates ‘when waiting for clothes stand on the line. Do not move beyond the line at anytime’. Blues disregards this advice crossing the line as he approaches the counter, only to be pulled back by his two burly minders. When required to sign for the return of his possessions, with both feet now firmly rooted behind the line and someway from the counter, like a tree being felled he falls forward, makes a human bridge with his stiffened body to place his ‘mark’ on the receipt.

I can’t watch this film without being reminded of the inability of people to follow instructions or observe the protocols given as part of the services they are receiving, and for this reason I’m turning my attention for this edition of ‘Thinking Aloud’ to the behaviour of ‘customers’ rather than the service providers. Unfortunately, unlike Jake Blues, their minders are not in attendance to help them observe the rules!

I’m intrigued, and constantly amazed by, the mistaken belief that the public will ‘toe the line’, and abide by the rules or conventions, or more practically to observe lines applied to floors, roads, and walkways in the forlorn hope that they will be observed. [For the avoidance of any doubt, ‘line’ is being used here to denote a visible mark or symbol often painted upon a surface, as opposed to the American interpretation of a queue of people]. The airport baggage collection carousel being a particular favourite, as this never fails to throw up a succession of people who just can’t bring themselves to do something as simple as stand ‘behind’ a line. The line is  designed to keep passengers a little distance from the carousel (for their safety and the comfort of other passengers), yet there are always those who will push in front of you to take up ‘pole position’ right at the front of the waiting crowds, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake as they clumsily manoeuvre their trolley through the crowds into their ringside position, obliterating everyone else’s view of the luggage as it  approaches, and then being too close to the moving belt to be able to manhandle their luggage from the carousel without cracking the shins of those standing about them. Ruining the process for everyone else but hey, they are OK!

This preoccupation with lines continues. ‘Keep back from the platform edge.  Passing trains cause air turbulence. Stand behind yellow line’ decorate platforms at many stations, yet passengers continue to stand on the very edge of the platform even when high speed trains pass through the station without stopping, severely compromising their safety, and no doubt testing the nerves of the poor train drivers.

The unattended taxi rank between London’s St. Pancras station (or St. Pancreas as my grandmother called it), and Kings Cross, is a joy to behold. At the head of the queue the rank comprises three ‘bays’ from which you can access a taxi, allowing three simultaneous ‘pick-ups’ thereby increasing the speed of turnaround and efficiency (in theory)! Despite the bays being clearly marked and numbered, for most it appears beyond their capability to recognise the process and adhere to it. And oh the anxiety if you are fourth in the queue and you are now faced with the dilemma of leaving the security of being at the head of the main body of that queue to take up position at bay #1 in readiness for the next trio of taxis to move into position. You have to hope that those behind you follow your example and move into the shortly vacant bays 2 and 3, rather than squeeze between the barrier and kerb to take the fourth and fifth taxis in line, thereby completely confusing everyone around and ‘stealing’ the taxi that was meant for you! So much for Disney Corporation building ‘lines’ (i.e. queues) that pass by the place where you join a ride so that you can observe the process before you engage in it (Disney obviously never tackled the problem of taxi ranks)!

Motoring related examples are, of course, too numerous to list here but these days does anyone adhere to ‘lane’ discipline as set out in the Highway Code? In particular, joining from the left has become a game of chicken; car parking a contest of spatial awareness to see how many parking bays can be occupied by a single vehicle; box junctions a tessellation puzzle (i.e. how many vehicles can you get into a limited space without overlapping); and distance chevrons on the carriageway of the M1 intended to encourage separation from the vehicle in front, has become an open opportunity for other road users to precariously thread themselves between you and the vehicle in front.

So why do we think that the sort of people who would avoid washing their hands after going to the toilet; dispose of their chewing gum in the urinals; or forget to turn off the taps after use (three regularly occurring notices in men’s toilets), will alter their behaviour because of a notice giving them instructions to do so? And have you ever counted the number of items shoppers have in their baskets when they are in the ‘5 items or less’ queue.

I’m always acutely aware when travelling by air of the cacophony of sound as the seatbelt sign is turned off after landing and everyone rushes to release their seatbelt. However, I’m even more amazed by those who have perfected the ‘silent’ seat belt release, whereby they appear to be compliant but are in fact ready to depart the aircraft prior to landing. My wife was reminded of the importance of these ‘rules’ as her hand was crushed between a fellow passenger’s bag and the armrest of her seat as he attempted to retrieve his overweight hand luggage from the overhead locker before the aircraft had come to a complete halt. He then lost his footing as the aircraft lurched towards the gate dropping the bag on her hand in the process. She was not amused although was badly bruised!

What hope then for honesty boxes (also known as an honour box)? Although, I did come across some interesting research recently (Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts 2006)[1] which appears to show that using the image of a pair of human eyes in the signs and notices associated with a honesty box in a university coffee room dramatically increased (by up to three times) the money collected for drinks taken, thereby providing evidence for the importance of cues of being watched, and the effects on cooperative behaviour.

So how do these examples inform those of us that design processes where customers are involved? What is it we assume the customer is capable of when we design processes, or do we have to design for the lowest common denominator? Our assumption that common sense will prevail, is perhaps to abandon that common sense. Despite all the good design principles the everyday operational issues often take control, with the associated consequences.

[1] Bateson. M., Nettle. D., and Roberts. G., (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biol. Lett. (2006) 2, 412 – 414. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.

User interface – How we interface with the technology.

March 14th, 2010

Well it happened just the other day; one of those out of character early morning phone calls you just know is going to be bad news! It was just before 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning when the telephone woke both my wife and I from a deep sleep following a rather late and disturbed night. As I answered in a half comatose and shocked state to hear my elderly father in a panic I immediately feared the worst! Establishing if I was ‘up yet’ he launched into how a message had appeared on his television screen and that he didn’t know what to do! Once my brain got over the initial shock of him being perfectly OK but just having problems with his television, I realised what had happened.

A few weeks earlier he had been complaining that some of the regular TV programmes he enjoyed had ‘disappeared’, and he could no longer find a number of the channels he liked to watch. I asked him if he had ‘re-tuned’ when the ‘new service message’ appeared on his screen. “What new service message” barked the reply! When I had the opportunity to check the TV settings I established that the ‘new service alert’ option had been disabled when the unit was installed, and that he had been unaware of any service upgrades for three years, slowly losing channels and services during that time. It was then that I enabled the alert feature, thereby allowing him to accept new or changed services as they became available, and this was the first time there had been a service change since then.

This little incident made me realise just how alien current day technology is to someone who has limited exposure to it, and the way we take for granted menu structures, binary selections modes, multi-purpose keys and buttons, and words such as ‘select’, ‘enter’, and ‘cursor’. It’s no coincidence that programming video recorders (VCR’s) has become the butt of so many jokes, and those new entrants to this market make a virtue of the simplicity of programming and use. Similarly, trying to remotely visualise the TV menu structure and layout of his handset in order to guide him through the accepting the new service option, over the telephone, was indeed a challenge, and gave me a whole new appreciation of help-desk operations.

Continuing this theme, from personal experience I like using maps and prefer to get a mental picture of a journey and how it relates to the physical landscape, and more specifically a mental ‘shape’ of the journey (i.e. down, across, down again, keep left of the city etc.). This certainly helps when you are faced with commands such as ‘Eastbound’ or other such directional instructions, especially when you are driving and unable to examine the map (it’s how I cope with spatial awareness). So the use of Satellite navigation (SATNAV) has been a challenge. Its adoption, in my case, has been episodic, cautious, and thought provoking. I had used it some years ago in a rental car in the US, and previous use improved confidence. However, I like to get a context for where I’m going but the small screen (even on the built-in versions) is too small to show the complete journey at a sensible scale, and the detailed version too limiting. You can no doubt select preferences but the instruction manual is longer than Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix! I tend to find SATNAV works best for me switching it on when I’m approaching my destination and the possible combinations or alternative routes it could offer are limited, and the margin for error therefore reduced. However, I did once enter the postcode of an organisation I was visiting only to end up at the local Postal Sorting Office, as this company publishes a postcode relating to the sorting office rather than their own site!

Which brings me full circle to where these missives originally began, a regular article I used to write for a user group publication so apologies to those of you who will have read some of this before (extracts first published in The Post, Volume 22, No: 2. April 2006).

As a frequent promoter of IT to help solve business problems and improve efficiency and effectiveness I understand the benefits of Radio Frequency (or wireless) devices. I applaud the flexibility and mobility they promote, be it instantly passing an order to the kitchen for service in restaurants, or checking stock room inventory when a customer asks for an item not available on the sales floor. But as a user and recipient of the service (or lack of it), I’m acutely aware of the incongruence of the application of technology in some of these situations.

On a visit to Lisbon (Portugal) I had time to visit a well-known ‘coffee house’ known as the ‘Majestic Café’. It boasts a long heritage, fantastic patisserie, traditional values, starched aprons and quality service; you could say “a tradition of excellence”! It was all going well until the waiter taking my order reached for an electronic device ‘slung’ from his waist and then avoid any further eye contact for the remainder of the transaction as he was transfixed by scrolling through menus, the rapid tapping of his pointing device on the glass screen, and repeatedly having to reaffirm what I had just ordered as he wasn’t really listening to me but concentrating hard on the screen and the device. Not only had the old world character of the Café been shattered, but also it felt like I had been in some way ancillary to the whole event. Not a great customer experience!

As ‘chip and pin’ is now embedded in the UK (i.e. the use of a personal identification number to validate the use of a credit card instead of signature verification), the technology is once again taking over. If you pay by card it can now be a completely ‘dialogue free’ transaction (although in some petrol stations I can see how this would be an attraction)! As customer familiarity grows with the devices (and these are many and varied), you can insert your card, and follow the instructions on screen, entering PIN, validating card type and transaction amount, and finally removing your card on command, all in complete silence, giving the attendant yet another excuse to avoid any interaction! Taking this one stage further, when paying for a meal in dimly lit restaurants you are now expected to accept the transaction amount, confirm that you want to give a gratuity (by using the function keys), insert the amount of the gratuity and press enter, accept the new total and press enter, accept the card type (toggle and enter), a total of twelve key stokes on my last count! How long before someone decides what a great opportunity this affords to collect customer information, feedback, socio economic grouping and much more.

It doesn’t matter how fast the processor or how clever the application, if the device is unusable then it is worthless. Clearly many of these devices are designed by engineers – for use by engineers, so what about the rest of us? Human-computer interaction (HCI) can’t be left to engineers alone and requires that we develop more user centric design principles when building such interfaces. Have you ever wondered why we only use fraction of the features available to us? Reduced complexity would be a good starting point.

“Your call is important to us”

March 14th, 2010

I know it shouldn’t, but my heart sinks whenever a call centre is involved in a process, as you just know in advance that there is going to be something about it that irritates you. Whether it’s the singing lilt of the operators voice; or the endless ‘Vivaldi Four Seasons’ music on hold, punctuated with the repeated messages about how important my call is to this organisation that leaves me waiting eternally for an operator. Or the mindless questions you get asked to confirm your identity despite already having gone through an extensive menu choice and entered your sixteen digit account number and date of birth, only to get a recorded message saying “this office is now closed. Our opening times are…..” Two of my recent exchanges with call centres has done nothing to improve this view, however they have served to make me think about the inappropriateness of these mechanisms, the inability of operators to ever really be able to answer the query I put to them with the information they have available to respond, or the impossible task they have of trying to make up for poorly designed business processes.

Moving a mobile contract from one service provider (BT) to another (O2), along with the transfer of an existing telephone number, as I tried to do recently, must be a standard transaction in these days of mass mobile usage? However, what was supposed to be a simple process didn’t turn out that way, and involved me making six calls to the O2 call centre. I replaced my existing ‘BT’ SIM card with the one provided by O2, and then waited the requisite twenty-four hours before trying to connect to the network. When the time elapsed the connection couldn’t be made. I called O2 ‘Customer Services’, and having gone through the obligatory security exchanges I informed the operator that my mobile phone service wasn’t working. Obviously reading from a screen of information about my account the call centre agent rejoiced in informing me that everything was “OK” with the account! Clearly everything wasn’t OK as I couldn’t use the phone (having gone to extreme lengths to explain how I had to use a different phone to make the call to them)! Despite this, the agent was insistent that everything was in working order when I once again repeated the explanation that the phone didn’t work, and yet appeared incapable of understanding that, despite what the system was conveying, the phone would not connect to the network. A week and a further five calls later (each time speaking to a different operator and having to explain in full the content of all the previous calls), we established that the SIM card O2 issued had not been set up correctly and if I had ignored their advice (and processes) and just kept the original SIM in my phone all would have been well – so why was I ever sent a new SIM? Luckily they were empowered to make an account adjustment for the loss of service for one week (but only after I prompted them), but I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to look at my account statement to see if a credit was actually applied, especially if that means further calls to the O2 ‘Customer Services’.

Utility companies have regularly become the focus of ridicule as a result of the growing trend of using overseas call centres as was reported recently that British Gas is sending yet further work to two centres in Bombay and Poona. The dash to outsource these call centres has invoked a substantial backlash to the use of non native speaking agents, based in some far flung location, trying to adopt English colloquialisms in an attempt to match and pace local accents, which also includes the use of dialects and slang. Yet when Indian call centres ground to a halt amid emotional scenes of grief-stricken fans mourning the death of the Bollywood film star Rajkumar, causing much disruption to UK based companies and their customers, our love affair with overseas call centre outsourcing began to wane. UK banks are now positively promoting the use of UK based call centres, and Nat West positively differentiate them by advertising UK base call centres 24/7. HSBC ‘Premier’ customers get a differentiated service by being directed to UK call centre operators, obviously recognising the need for a premier service for premier customers. So what does that say about the rest of their customers who have to endure overseas call centres?  If this wasn’t bad enough, the Austrian Justice Ministry have set up call centres in prisons employing convicted fraudsters and hired them out to private companies. It might just be worth checking that your bank isn’t amongst those companies taking advantage of this ‘captive audience’, and that you could be handing over your personal banking details to a fraudster on the payroll. It brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘cell phone’!

E.On (formerly Powergen) continue to send me correspondence regarding an unknown account, quoting an account number that, when referring to their records, shows that the account doesn’t exist. I can, and do on a regular basis, confirm that there is no account with these details at this address. I’m not entirely sure that the operators believe that I could possibly be in receipt of any correspondence so addressed, with an account number containing insufficient digits, but I enclosed the originals as proof (if any should be required) in a letter to their ‘Customer Service Manager’ over six months ago, needless to say I haven’t received an explanation, apology, or even a reply. Yet despite their constant mantra of this being an invalid account, they seem unable to stop producing correspondence for it!

It is inappropriate to brand these call centres as ‘customer service’. From my own personal experience I consider they are inherently flawed and wonder if they really do have a chance of providing a positive customer service? You never speak to the same person twice, thereby having to repeat the nature of your enquiry in full before the next operator can try and help. The nature of your call is often to complain when you are not satisfied with something, often as a result of poor processes and procedures, and invariable the operators are not empowered to construct solutions.

I suspect that the efficacy of the call centre is probably directly proportional to the efficacy of the organisation it supports. Unfortunately, the lasting impression of the caller will be impacted by the service they receive from the call centre. So before you buy a product or service from an organisation, contact their call centre.

Identity crisis

March 14th, 2010

Our increasing use of computers has heightened the importance of how we identify ourselves to computer systems (identity authentication). I was horrified when a quick count of user names, passwords, and PIN’s I am required to have in use to access my on-line accounts and memberships numbered in the hundreds! An obvious consequence of having this many (in an attempt to avoid too much reuse) is the inability to operate safely and securely and at the same time observe the security advice to not write them down and commit them to memory. This is made even harder when a preferred or regular ‘user name’ isn’t available and you are forced to adopt an automatically generated alternative. If you are lucky, or named ‘Xavier’, ‘Yolander’, or ‘Zenah’, it might contain some letters that are meaningful to you, but these are usually random and system generated with an alpha numeric mix in upper and lower case characters. Some systems also force you to change the password on a regular basis and won’t allow you to reuse any of the previously used passwords, or parts thereof, or repeat numbers in sequence, or use full stops, underscores, or other symbols, or even letters in alphabetical sequence (ascending or descending).

Having just changed laptops I realised how dependent I had become on the machine to automatically insert passwords when it recognises the initial character of a valid user name. Yet it took nearly fifteen minutes to remove any trace of personal data from an on-line airline check-in transaction for a flight using a publicly accessed computer in a hotel, this taking longer than the transaction itself! So now I’m reduced to a listing of accounts with user names, passwords, i.e. a directory of what I have to remember, but where do I store it, and do I dare take it anywhere with me? This ‘PIN and password blindness’ drives some unusual behaviour. My mother-in-law used to embed her ATM PIN within a fictitious telephone number in her address book as a way of remembering what numbers to use. So it should be no surprise that the most frequent call made to computer help desks is password related, especially when the user returns to work following a vacation!

Research conducted during 2005[1] suggested that adults on average had two PIN’s and eight usernames to remember, and less than 60% of respondents could remember two of them unprompted. One in four had twice this many and some have 45! It would be interesting to see if in the last three years this trend had increased, especially following the introduction of Chip and Pin card transactions and the growth of Broadband, internet usage, and on-line transactions. I can’t believe my experience is so abnormal and would be interested to hear if you have a similar experience.

Whilst speaking to a group of South African retailers in Cape Town we discussed the likelihood of using biometrics at the point of sale, a move that apparently many South African retailers are quietly supporting, as are the Banks in an attempt to counter ATM fraud and customer authentication. The use of fingerprint identification is being seriously evaluated in order to remove the use of PIN’s. This was all looking promising until an unwitting bank official made a bullish statement in a newspaper article that fingerprint identification would make it difficult for the ATM criminals, as “it would mean that they would have to chop off a person’s finger to gain access to their money”. In a country that has experienced some of the world’s highest crime rates and personal attacks I’ll leave the rest of this tale to your own imagination!

On-line registrations

Registration is a prerequisite of using many on-line services these days, and nearly everything you enter into, such as travel loyalty schemes, supermarket discounts, cashless parking, all have an on-line element to them that requires that you first register, often including your payment details (i.e. credit card and bank account numbers), and hence generates even more user names and passwords. (See ‘Thinking Aloud No 3’). Just reflect on how many of your Christmas gifts this year will require on-line registrations for guarantees, after sales service, as they incorporate a ‘software key’ which you have to access on-line to enable use of the product.

A recent change of job brought this ‘password scrabble’ to a head for me. The number of ‘registrations’ that use an email address as a proxy for username forced a string of changes. This was a real test of my recall of ‘passwords’ and even memorable events; places; and the meaningful security question prompt, especially for those less frequently used or dormant accounts. So frequently used is my mothers maiden name, first school, road I grew up in, favourite place, the name of my pets, that they must now cease to be secure, especially as you increasingly run the risk of your bank records or patient medical records being on a computer disc that is ‘lost in the post’, or on a laptop stolen from the unattended boot of a civil servants car!

I noticed that the instructions on a 2006-7 tax form enthusiastically promotes the use of an on-line alternative and encourages you to “Register for the on-line service at and select Self Assessment under do it online”. What they conveniently omit is that in order to register you are first issued with a 12 digit alpha numeric code. Then you need a ‘Unique Tax Reference’ (i.e. a 10 digit number). As I didn’t have a UTR, or any correspondence containing same, for security reasons the Revenue would need to post this to me, with apparently a ten day lead time (heaven forbid that someone might steal my code and pay tax on my behalf)! I would then have to request a PIN, which required yet another posting from the revenue, and another ten day delay. In total somewhere between 14 and 20 days just to register. Surely this severely undermines the principle of convenience, speed, and ease of operation that an on-line offering is meant to promote, whilst adding to a growing list of identification devices.

We appear happy to run the risk of increased security issues for the perceived convenience and cost effectiveness that digital transactions bring. Our ‘on-line’ persona comprises a combination of secret codes, numbers, and phrases, yet despite our best attempts at securing the technology through encryption, it is the user that is the weakest link. The anonymity of using cash in transactions is once again becoming rather appealing!

[1] Research conducted by ‘Teamspirit’, a financial services marketing company, May 2005.

The self service Krypton factor!

March 14th, 2010

Self service is an everyday part of our lives. When it works well it is hardly noticeable, but when it doesn’t work it really goes horribly wrong! Two recent experiences with ‘self service’ car parking proved just this. I had thought it happened just to me, but I now feel in good company as Jeremy Clarkson [1] reported a similar experience recently on ‘Top Gear’, Sunday 28th October 2007.

I arrived at Rugby station without any prior knowledge of the major building works taking place (I later discovered this was due to the addition of a new platform that had totally disrupted station operations). Unfamiliar with the site layout I did battle with the assault course of temporary traffic lights to find a car park. Being midday the station car parks were very busy, but I did find a space at the furthermost point from the station buildings. I parked and then had to walk back 200 yards to the ‘Pay and Display’ dispenser. The fee for the minimum parking duration (24 hours) was £6, and the machine only took coins; no notes; and no credit cards. Having just over £3 in coins I had to look for an alternative way to pay. Adjacent to the pay and display machine was a ‘pay by phone’ advert describing how by calling one of the two numbers listed you could pay by phone, and included the encouraging statement confirming “all major credit cards accepted”.

I dialled the second of the two numbers provided as it was designated as being ‘operator assisted’. Having never used this system before, and limited time before my train departed, I thought this would be a quicker and more successful choice. I was greeted with an automated recording explaining that this service was temporarily unavailable! So reluctantly I resorted to the ‘automated option’. To save time, or so I thought, I started walking back towards my car, during which I commenced the ‘registration process’. Having no prior knowledge of the vendor I didn’t really want to ‘register’, especially as this required that I enter my credit or charge card details, but as the car park was unattended and therefore self-service, I had no option!

Part way through the process I was asked to enter a 4 digit location number. Location number! Frantically looking around to find a number I ended up running back to the pay and display machine to get the number. As I haven’t yet mastered the equivalent of breaking the world record for the 200m dash I was unable to enter the number in time before the system ejected me from the process. I then restarted the registration from scratch, and just in case I required any other information I remained in the vicinity of the pay and display machine until asked for my vehicle registration number! Now I’m really good at remembering the registration numbers of vehicles I owned 20 years ago, but as for the current vehicle it could be anything. In the absence of a ticket to display as proof of payment, the parking information explains how the accuracy of entering the correct number into the system is vital, as it was the only method by which the parking attendant would know if you had paid the fee (Parking attendant, where are they when you need them)?

Once again I had to sprint the length of the car park to my car. Then followed the laborious task of having to enter a seven digit alpha numeric registration number in to a mobile phone keypad. The phones multi function buttons require confirmation that you actually mean, for example, the letter ‘L’ by confirming with the number (3) from the audible instructions you receive after each key, this to distinguish from the letter ‘J’, ‘K’, or the number ‘5’ all served by the same key selection! If this is your first time using this method it is most confusing.

By this time having registered, requested the appropriate parking duration, and then headed off for the station, I had missed my train! In the 1h 20 minutes wait for the next train I had time to reflect on the fact that I didn’t have any form of receipt, a prerequisite for us business travellers. I later noticed that one of the two text messages I had already received from NCP (National Car Parks) included the one liner ‘for receipts go to

Of course, the privilege of using this ‘self service’ payment method had also attracted a 40p fee, and twenty four hours later (having retrieved my car and travelled some 200 miles from that car park) I received another text reminding me that I could extend the parking time automatically by “calling this number”. I’m sure that for the regular traveller using Rugby Station the system, once you are familiar with it, works well. However for the casual user, and I don’t know when I will next have to travel via Rugby station, if ever, it wasn’t a great customer experience.

If that wasn’t bad enough just a couple of days later when parking at Grantham Station I had another disappointing self-service experience. The nearest pay and display parking machine to where I was parked was out of order. The next nearest, in the adjacent parking area, would accept neither my American Express card nor a HSBC Switch/Maestro card. I then proceeded to the next nearest point of payment, which was the station ticket office, where I purchased a parking ticket along with my travel ticket. As I had to park at the furthermost point from the station, and the time taken from the aborted attempts to pay at previous machines was lengthy, I did not have time to return to my car to display the ticket. I informed both the parking attendant and ticket clerk of not being able to display the purchased ticket, and was assured that they would liaise to ensure I was parked appropriately. Of course, upon returning to my car that evening I had received a fixed penalty parking ticket for not displaying a valid ticket!

Central to my defence when writing to GNER to get this penalty suspended is that a prerequisite of an effective and ‘fit for purpose’ self-service Pay and Display parking system must be the adequate provision of working payment machines that accept valid forms of payment in the vicinity of where you park. A defence I’m pleased to report that was successful!

Self service should not be a code word for ‘bad service’ or even worse, ‘no service’ at all. This cunning plan to let your customers do all the work, and at their expense, should not be condoned by the discerning customer!

[1] Jeremy Clarkson is an English broadcaster and writer who specialises in motoring. He writes weekly columns but is better known for his role on the BBC TV programme ‘Top Gear’. Clarkson is known to be opinionated and forthright in his views, and has been described as “a skilful propagandist for the motoring lobby”.

Cafe Culture

March 14th, 2010

A recent combination of business and vacation travel afforded me the opportunity to fuel my voyeurism of retail and service outlet processes in diverse locations such as Melbourne, London, San Francisco, Sydney and Hong Kong. What is immediately apparent is that café culture is ubiquitous, high streets everywhere dominated by vendors of freshly brewed coffee. However, regardless of location, chain, or vendor, what also appears universal in the execution of their business is the complete lack of understanding that there is a relationship between taking and fulfilling your order!

As a customer you are forced to adopt the fast food service model of Select - Pay - Collect, where the process is meant to benefit from the division of labour and plays out in series rather than in parallel. Most establishments now operate this production line method where you are corralled into line to give your order to barista #1 at the register, during which you choose what you want and they take your order (Select). They then take your tender (Pay), and pass on your requirements to baristas #2 and #3 to complete the order (Collect). All well and good you might think, but have they ever considered the problem of ‘line balancing’ [1]?

Most don’t use the register (i.e. the place the order is captured), to pass the order down the production line. Instead they rely on a quaint ‘shorthand’ that has emerged for your ‘skinny latte, decaf, double shot with Mocha to go’, that gets scrawled onto the side of the waxed paper cup with a thick black indelible pen, sometimes this will also include your name to avoid any confusion as you collect. The cup then becomes your order docket in this process, which often can’t be read by those making up the order, and completely breaks down as a process if the customer decides to drink ‘in’, whereby they switch to using ‘real’ crockery. An alternative approach is to call out aloud the order in the hope that barista #2 is able to tune-in above the music, remember, and then accurately fulfil the order especially as they are likely to be mid way through the previous order while doing this.

Closely-coupled retailing: Has anyone studied the relationship between the length of time it takes to capture an order, versus the time taken to prepare the drinks? How often have you got 2 or 3 barista’s taking orders (at say sub one minute per transaction), and only one barista making-up the orders (at say 2-3 minutes per order)? Once you have ordered and paid you are hostages to the process with no alternative but to soak up the experience of your bespoke order being prepared to your exact specification! Then add to this mix the purchase of food, loyalty schemes, and this all becomes a real mess! The reaction of most establishments to more customers arriving is to increase their capacity to take orders, leaving the poor barista preparing the drinks to fall even further behind. Why do they choose these busy times to merchandise their stock, and if all you want is that Mozzarella and Tomato Pannini to go (without any hot drinks) you also get caught up in this dysfunctional production process? “Sorry about the wait” becomes the chant of the flustered barista as they hand over a double mocha with extra cream, and then all those awaiting drinks eagerly look at each other to establish ownership. And the poor customers who ordered their drinks for consumption on the premises are still waiting!

One Bakery and Coffee Company I recently frequented proudly displayed the heritage of the establishment as “trading since 1906”. I think some of its customers could still be awaiting their order. Finally, in the interest of ‘balance’, I did come across one female barista who demonstrated beyond any doubt the ability of the female of the species being able to ‘multi-task’! Not only could she remember several orders, but would also prepare the drinks, and take payment what appeared to be simultaneously. No line balancing problem here!

[1] Assigning numbers of operators or machines to each operation of an assembly line so as to meet the required production rate with a minimum of idle time.

“Would you like help with packing your bags”?

March 14th, 2010

First published in The Post, Volume 23, No: 3. September 2007

It was a busy Saturday morning at our local supermarket, and uncharacteristically forced to shop at the weekend because of a hectic midweek schedule my wife and I battled our way through the hordes towards the checkout. Oh what joy as we rounded the last aisle to view all 35 checkouts with long lines and the approach aisle invisible for a sea of people?

So was this just ‘SWOS’ (shear weight of shoppers)? Well not entirely! As we made our way up our line towards the checkout we could see the angelic faces of two children, a boy and a girl, accompanied by a harassed adult. The boy obviously bored and preferring to be with his friends playing football rather than trapped in a supermarket, kindly stopped picking his nose when the checkout assistant asked “would you like help with packing your bags”? Now what do you say? From the ‘T’ shirts being worn by the kids (and their adult minder) they were raising funds to fight the proposed closure of a local pre-school nursery. Clearly not wanting to offend them when our turn came around we timidly responded “yes please”!

It was at this point that I took up a position behind the kart (i.e. the furthermost distance from the little angels) so that I could avoid any possible temptation of a Basil Fawlty like ‘clip to the head’ as our little helpers happily put anything in any bag, tipped upside-down goods you would want to stand upright, and disregarded the fragility of items like flowers and greetings cards. The girl inspected every item as if she had never seen them before, poking her fingers through the packaging to examine the texture of the Broccoli (very educational)! Her limited stature meant that on average five items was all she could handle per carrier bag. Then followed the double handling as the obviously stressed adult was trying to combine the part-filled bags thereby compounding the problem. It didn’t help though when struggling to get a French Stick (i.e. a long thin bread loaf) to balance upright alongside other  items in a half empty bag she solved the problem by ‘folding it’, thereby breaking it into two halves, so that it could be packed ‘efficiently’!  Thank goodness my wife was with me and able to cautiously supervise operations while making the children feel as if they were adding value and earning our donations. Unfortunately they were just making the lines longer, elongating the transaction times, and raising the blood pressure of shoppers.

Is this just a UK phenomenon that groups raising funds are allowed to terrorise shoppers at the checkout on the busiest shopping day of the week?