The checkout lane at my local (insert any) store has become an obstacle course of questions, surveys and actions I must take to make a simple purchase. It used to be easy, then it got hard, then it got easy again and now they have found a way to make it hard all over again. It used to be easy because you just paid cash. Then people started paying with credit cards – a painful process in the 70’s and 80’s requiring a lot of manual work. Then they made it easy to pay with cards – easier than paying with cash. Now, marketers and merhcants have figured out a way to make your checkout process difficult again.
Here’s an example of a recent exchange between a clerk and myself at Store X:
Clerk: Did you find everything you were looking in for?
Me: Yes (I only say this because if I had not found everything I was looking for, I certainly can’t ask the clerk for assistance at this point since she is chained to the register and I am already at the checkout stage not wanting to continue shopping.)
Clerk: Could I interest you in Product X for $5? (Product X is conveniently located next the register.)
Me: No thanks.
Clerk: Will there be anything else?
Me: No, that’s it.
Clerk: Can I get your phone number?
Me: I’d rather not give that.
Clerk: Can I get your zip code?
Me: I’d rather not give that either.
Clerk: Would you like to donate a dollar to charity X?
Me: No. (I’d really just like to pay for my order and leave.)
Clerk: If you call this 800 number on the receipt and rate my service, you will automatically be entered to win X.
I’m not exaggerating here. All of that just to purchase a few snacks and a soda. And I wonder this entire time how much advertisement must I be bombarded with at the checkout lane. Isn’t it enough that I chose to shop at your store to begin with? Why are you punishing me with this onslaught of add-ons?
Marketers have figured out extra ways to get into your pockets for years. They don’t care about giving you a good experience or making your checkout process better. They only care about making the company more money at any expense. Best Buy is infamous for this sort of thing. They want to sell me an extended warranty on everything right down to a $10 CD. I don’t think they are doing this anymore, but they used to try and sell you magazine subscriptions at the end of your order. Who in the world thought that was a good idea? Yeah, I came in Best Buy because I wanted a subscription to Sports Illustrated. Right. They are using the wrong moment for a sale. Good sales prey on buyers when they have a moment of need – like those guys selling $1 bottled waters on a hot day in the city park. A buyer has a point-of-need and if you can meet it, the buyer doesn’t feel as exploited.
Another primary problem with the checkout discourse above is the concept of saying “no.” People don’t like to say no. It feels better in our culture to say yes. I certainly don’t like to say no when asked if I would like to donate a dollar to the Poor Orphan Shelter Charity. Saying no to this gives people a negative feeling. It adds a negative connotation to the sale process and that is not what you want a customer to feel at the point of sale. The newest one they try to get me with is asking me to round my receipt up to the nearest whole dollar where the extra change that would have normally gone in my pocket, instead goes to a charity – a charity of their choice, not mine. I still say no. Sometimes they don’t ask about a charity, but will ask you a litany of other questions before finishing the sale. It isn’t the cashier’s or even the manager’s fault. Someone somewhere has mandated this procedure and someone probably gets a bonus based on how many yes answers they can garner (so maybe a manager is at fault).
The short of it is this: I don’t want to give my phone number, my blood type or zip code so you can send me marketing materials. I don’t want to answer fifty questions to purchase a beef stick and a soda. And I certainly don’t want call your online survey system and spend five minutes with a robot to tell your company about what a “great experience” I had purchasing my beef stick and soda. It’s a simple transaction. Beef stick. Soda. Maybe a few groceries or something. Ring it up and get me out of here. Is this a customer service issue or a user experience issue? Maybe it’s both.
Usability has become somewhat a common term in use today. Atypically, we think of it in terms of a product, website or something related to design. Of late, we hear the term “user experience” thrown around and an entire profession has cropped up labeling themselves UX Designers. These people (to include myself since I use this label and it is my current job title) usually work to create websites, web applications or computer applications that are user friendly and alleviate the frustration all to common in navigating modern applications. You can thank these people when you find what you want on amazon.com or curse them (or lack of their presence) when you encounter a website too difficult to navigate or use. But I believe user experience is a larger issue than simply design and I’ve been noticing this for a number of years – perhaps when I took an early course in the organization and representation of knowledge and information as a graduate in the IU School of Library and Information Science program. There was an assignment in this course that asked us to visit a grocery store and note the way it had organized the aisles, the products and merchandise in the store. We don’t usually think about such things as consumers. We usually head to the grocery store, spend some time milling around to find what we want and rarely put a second thought to how many times you can’t find something you are seeking and are forced through numerous aisles that don’t have the pickles, jam or whatever you ventured out for.
I completed that assignment back in the fall of 2005. Seven years later, I still note the organization of grocery stores – the lack of good aisle space, the promotion of items not even related to food and the odd placement of some items in aisles they clearly should not be in. The point I am making here is that the “user experience” extends far beyond websites or web applications in the world and “user experience” can be confused with customer service – whether direct or indirect. We have many methods of indirectly serving the customer today from store websites, store signs, checkout procedures, etc.
In all fairness, building a web application or an interface does require one to move beyond customer service-oriented issues. There are issues involving human factors, web design and human information behavior. But, user experience can be applied beyond the domain of web and computer applications. Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things is a good example of how the user can be considered in designs beyond web applications and computers. In one of his other books, Things That Make Us Smarter, Norman writes in detail of his frustrating experience in calling a company and navigating his way through their phone maze to get a representative on the line.
It’s time to stop thinking about the profession of UX Designers and Information Architects as solely technical fields and instead think of these professions for what they are – an attempt to design products with the end-user’s needs as a primary goal. Those products don’t always have to be websites and corporations should stop placing their departments in silos. The customer’s experience is cross-channel today and extends well beyond the technology you provide via the web. The customer’s experience is more of a journey and this is why many in the field of UX have developed customer journeys. It’s obvious not enough businesses are really using these type of tools. If they were, my checkout process at the local store might not ruin what was shaping up to be a decent customer journey.