Friday, April 08, 2011

Insert Your Card - a user story

It’s 8:58 PM on a balmy Friday night and the local wine merchant is about to roll down the steel cage door. Why is always at these little Friday night soirees that no one ever brings enough imbibe to keep the silver tongues dancing?
Andrea’s breath leaves a trail of whispered steam that plots her hurried pace to the limited vintage selection down the corner. As she hurries towards the hopeful neon, she contemplates whether uncorking a few screwtops might just elevate the priority of adequate resourcing for the next informal meeting of the minds.
Once in the store, her years of amateur sommelier practice pay off and in no time she hoists her well stocked basket in front of the cashier, proudly presenting a couple hefty Riojas balanced by her favorite wispy Bordeaux, the instantly classic and far too expensive ’82 Lafite. ’83 was just not the same.
Her wallet is already in her hand and she quickly pulls 5 crisp twenties and sets them on the counter as she unsnaps the change compartment…empty. A quick glance at the new girl behind the counter gives no glimmer of recognition and in despair she starts to prioritize Spain over France, lining up the soldiers to choose one to fall first.
The clerk doesn’t skip a beat. Reaching her hand beside the register, she whips out a strange telephone like device and hands it to Andrea. “We take debit.”
“What? Debit?”
Then it hits her. Somewhere in the retsina-accompanied fog of her Friday night glow she remembers the quick scan she took over a pamphlet in the bank scant weeks ago. Diving into the card section of her Ferragamo wallet, she procures the mag-striped novelty that she has just started using to deposit her paycheques and hands it to the clerk.
Tap tap tap.
She takes it back from the clerk and squints at the screen.
She assesses the clerk’s helpfulness and clips the support request down to, “…same as the bank machine?” As if expecting this, the clerk nods quickly and looks down at the machine.
They stand facing each other, engaged in this strange new transaction as it starts to move ahead quickly.
She hands it back to the clerk and the chatter of the miniature matrix plays a strange harmony to the crinkling of plastic bags encasing the precious guarantee that great friends and good conversation will ensue for a few more hours.
I single plastic card falls to a well worn counter, the bounces echoing in the eery silence of a wine shop frozen in time.
What just happened?
The world changed in an instant. A cultural and practical change on this level that has such profound implications on how we manage (if you believe that rampant consumerism is a form of managing) our financial systems and status is predicated by only a few significant phenomena, such as banks, money, RRSPs and other instruments of investment and preservation. But lets ponder for a moment the complexity of those instruments and the apparent simplicity of the much more sophisticated system that chattered and tapped and quietly streamed the transaction across the web-i-verse.
Do you take this for granted? Yup.
Should you? Yup.
Why? Recently the topic of walk up UX has been floating in the hallowed XD and enterprise halls at Adobe. The term itself is kind of walk-up, right? I think you instantly grok what it means and why it matters.
And while this mundane and antiquated example of boring old-people technology is well behind us, what is interesting is that it has persisted through generations of PC form factors, mobile phone types, fundamental shifts in network and networked technology and it still works just as good as it did when it launched. Will Square replace it forever? Will the bank and payment machines of the future do away with the bulky terminals and the oft too long wait for a 56K phone line connection to take us screaming into consumer bliss.
What won’t change is that a great user experience that makes sense the first time you experience it, and a value proposition that inspires you to finish the task, will never go out of style. That’s walk-up UX.
In a recent discussion on IXDA, an energetic thread on the user experiences that changed the world popped up and interestingly almost all of them had great walk-up UX. Interac and debit appeared a few times on the list, and more recently in banking the PNC Virtual Wallet was mentioned a few times as well. The other thing that was notable was that many of them had little or no UI such as QR codes, EZPass, DropBox and RFID, while others had much more sophisticated and complex UIs, such as Skype, Traktor, PayPal and ZipCar. This indicates, and should come as no surprise, that the user interface is pretty much an open book in terms of complexity and sophistication and a great user experience ensues either way. But that’ another story.
It was a great party.
Note: I know finding an ’82 Lafite at your local wine shop, especially for that price, is not realistic but it’s an aspirational fairy tale.

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