Newest isn’t always Best

(Originally published in October 2014)

From renting movies, to selling clothes, to providing family vacation packages, every business should strive to understand how it can provide the best possible service experiences.

Services have existed since long before formalized economies and, along with the rest of the world, have always changed and evolved in response to new technologies. Just as the printing press changed how we store and share information which, in turn, drastically transformed how humans learn and teach, over the last couple decades the explosion of technological innovations and digital ubiquity has enabled and improved billions of experiences around the globe.

With such awe-inspiring results, it’s easy for organizations to become enchanted by the potential (or the fear of being left behind) and begin rushing into adopting and applying technological solutions. However, while the benefits are obvious, there are times when the blind application of new technologies to a service offering can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Attractive Paths

In my previous post, I spoke about the paths (offerings) companies may take (provide) in order to reach a desired goal.

Respectively, these paths correspond to Blockbuster, Netflix DVD service,
Netflix online service, Redbox, Apple TV and a collaborative consumption method.

Most of these paths benefit from leveraging at least some technology (e.g., being able to take credit card payments, or a Redbox app to check movie availabilities), and others require technology at the core of their value proposition (e.g., Netflix online streaming). While technology can be a powerful enabler and facilitator, it is not a magic bullet that solves deeper issues that may be stemming from poor business operations, a lack of clear vision and strategy, or a failure to understand your users. Haphazardly applying the wrong technologies for the wrong reasons could lead to negative experiences that are insufficient, poorly incorporated or even damaging to your desired experiential goals.

Abridged Case Studies

Below are three examples where technology applications, for unique reasons, either didn’t or couldn’t explicitly lead to ideal experiences. Two of them are borrowed from Darrell K. Rigby’s “Digital-Physical Mashups” article (page 84) in the Harvard Business Review, and a third analyzes a ubiquitous yet almost universally reviled technological experience.

1. “Can’t I just pay for it online and take one from the shelf?” Of course not.

Last December my daughter Stacy wanted to buy the Just Dance 4 video game for her little girl. She found it on a major retailer’s website for $29.97. To be on the safe side — Christmas was approaching — she decided to go to the retailer’s local store and pick it up. There, however, it was selling for $47.97, a 60% markup. She was surprised, but she remembered the company’s price-matching guarantee, so she asked for the online price. No dice, said the cashier — the guarantee applied only to competitors’ prices.
“Wait,” Stacy said. “I can buy this game online and have it shipped to the store free, right?” The cashier agreed, but cautioned that it might take several days. My daughter replied, “But it’s on your shelf now. Can’t I just pay for it online and take one from the shelf?” Of course not, was the response; the store and the online operation were separate businesses, and that would mess things up. Standing at the register, Stacy ordered the item on her phone, and a few days later she came back to collect it — another exasperating process.

In this case, it’s clear that this company dove into the world of ecommerce without first considering how to align multiple business operations, how to best prepare its retail staff to manage this new channel, or the implications this has on its customers who will, inevitably, not view these two channels as separate business entities.

2. “We were wrong [when] we said ‘The whole world is going online only.’”

Perhaps the surest sign that digital technologies are transforming physical businesses rather than annihilating them is the growing number of digital companies that are themselves moving toward digital-physical fusions. Two early pioneers of online trading — E*Trade and TD Ameritrade — have invested in physical branches . . . [and] digital retailers such as Warby Parker and Bonobos are launching physical stores. Andy Dunn, the CEO of Bonobos, says, “We were wrong at the beginning. In 2007 we started the company, and we said, ‘The whole world is going online only. All we’re going to do is be online.’ But what we’ve learned recently is that the offline experience of touching and feeling clothes isn’t going away.”

These businesses all made incorrect assumptions about their customer’s ideal experience, so even though their technology-centric offerings (paths) are relatively effective, they were, holistically, falling short of their business’s potential.

Interestingly, while many brick-and-mortar business are rushing into technological solutions at the expense of their previous bread-and-butter business models, these technology-originating businesses are moving in the other direction.

3. When the customer experience isn’t your #1 priority
A technologically based experience that we almost all dread is the navigation of an organization’s interactive voice response (IVR) system, colloquially vilified as a “phone maze.”

In a disturbing case cited by the Wall Street Journal, a woman

…tried to get through to Northwest Airlines for five hours, trying several times each hour to find a person who could help her with a question about her frequent-flier points. “I kept calling and calling, and every time you’re forced to go through several prompts. Then when you think you’re making headway, it says, ‘Due to our call volume, please call later.’”

While the switch from call centers or secretaries to IVRs has obvious organizational appeal, the negative impact to customer experiences is unmistakable: millions of frustrated forum and blog posts, dozens of sites devoted to IVR navigation tips and tricks, and some large businesses are even proudly proclaiming their lack of IVR adoption as a major selling point.

An anti-IVR ad from Discover Card:

An anti-IVR ad from Discover Card

Unsurprisingly, IVR implementation has actually disincentivized many people from calling organizations in the first place — which can translate or escalate into other serious issues. For instance, one of my elderly coworkers has such disdain for IVR experiences that she frequently avoids calling her doctor and pharmacist, even when running critically low on her much-needed prescription refills.

Getting It Right

Poorly applied technologies can create negative impacts that ripple throughout an organization, but finding good applications is not impossible. For every experience, there’s a healthy, beneficial mix of technology, and one aspect of service design is to deeply understand where to strike this balance. In every one of the above examples, solid design thinking could have led to better overall experiences if they had followed these five steps:

  1. Identifying your position.
    Deeply understand your current state from every perspective (customers and employees, business operations and vision, etc.).
  2. Finding your goal.
    Combine this understanding with your organization’s vision in order to discover what an ideal experience might look like.
  3. Creating possible paths.
    With all the technological and design tools available to you, find ways to make the ideal experience possible.
  4. Selecting the best path.
    Test your most attractive options to evaluate how close they get to the experiential goal.
  5. Making ongoing refinements.
    Even after implementing your selected path, continue tracking user’s experiences and evolving needs, as well as new and emerging technologies for future opportunities.

Pro Tip: Even when technologies are implemented effectively, a well-designed service is still made to be flexible and resilient in order to catch and fix unexpected problems that may arise. Take technology failures, for example: What should a restaurant do if its cash register or credit card machine goes down for a couple of hours?

Closing Thoughts

New technology can be a powerful facilitator of enjoyable experiences, and the future it’s enabling looks bright. When considering technological solutions, as with any decision, there are compromises resulting in pros and cons. The dazzling allure of technology makes it easy to become fixated on the pros while overlooking the cons. At the end of the day, however, as we work to make great experiences for the world around us, we must remember that the experience that should never be compromised is the human one.

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