Do it yourself..

We often observe that something that needed help by an employee is now done by ourselves. Our automobile-affine friends have to fill in gasoline themselves since the seventies in Germany and now even the payment is often done with cards, so that there is no human on site, but only video surveillance, I assume. In Italy it is hard to buy a map, because the shops that usually sell them in gas stations have become very rare and other shops do not sell maps either. This maybe another „do it yourself“, because we use our phone as a map and the printed map has become obsolete or at least less important. Depending on the roaming costs this can be more expensive, but it is there and helps us find where we are on the map and even finding our way…

In some shops we can scan the stuff that we bought ourselves. In some shops in England this is actually the only way that is available. For small purchases I do that myself, because waiting in the line takes longer, but for a larger number of items I would think that the professional is still faster, if the lines are not excessively long. Btw. Aldi, which is a company that runs their shops very efficiently and offers good prices in turn does not seen to use this at all, but they rather trained their employees to be efficient when scanning and to do other work in the shop when there are less people queuing.

Some countries have abolished all the post offices or at least the majority of them, but the service is covered by other shops that are there for something else and cover the postal service by their employees. This helps retaining some presence in thinly populated areas, but it becomes a problem for non trivial requests. They exist in the postal service and it becomes painful when the employees do not have the skills to help. We start using our phone and try to find it out ourselves, which may or may not help.

Airports and airlines encourage to do the check-in via app or internet, which can be a good thing because dealing with this process is annoying, but still faster than waiting in the line. The question remains why so few counters are open.. Baggage drop can also be automated, which works well with standard sized luggage. If we have a kg too much, a human might let us get away with it, but I doubt that a machine is responsive to a smile and a short explanation, if not accompanied by payment. And „oversize“ luggage will always require assistance.

A similar issue arises with railroad tickets. The majority of them can be bought via internet, the app or the vending machine. This has been somewhat improved. In Germany it is possible to find a phone number and reach a human for more difficult tickets. Then we just need to identify with a credit card or with a rail pass on any vending machine to print the tickets, even tickets which we would never have been able to buy ourselves on the vending machine, either because they do not appear in the menus, or because they are too hard to find. Or because the risk of buying a more expensive ticket is too big. In Switzerland a mechanism that was meant primarily for handicapped people who are buying there tickets allows for a VoIP-connection from the vending machine to a call center or to call a number, to get help for the buying process. This is primarily for helping to actually use the machine, which can be useful or at least eliminate some of the panic from situations where we need to get the ticket before our train leaves, if the time is not too short (German Blog about this on the official blog of the SBB). I would like to add that the Swiss ticket vending machines are more user friendly. Now of course we are encouraged to move away from the vending machine and to use the mobile app or print the tickets via the internet. This lets us do work ourselves that was formerly done by an employee, but maybe still saves us time in most of the cases.

When there is still a ticket office with professional railroad employees within reach, this can be ok, but it can become hard if the ticket vending office is run by another shop with their employees like some post office replacements or if there is no human at all within reach. Buying the ticket on the train has become more difficult to impossible as well.

But some of us have maybe heard that in the old days a phone call implied calling some operator and having the operator connect the phone call. This was still available as an option not too many years ago, at least in the time before the mobile phones came up. And it was actually used in the United States, mostly to create calls that were charged to the callee instead of the caller. Usually just dialing the number or even using it from the phones address book is much more convenient than talking to the operator.

So doing things ourselves can be a win-win situation, if the assistence we can get is good enough or if businesses lets us profit from their efficiency gain in some reasonable way. But in any more sophisticated transaction we either loose endless time to figure out how to do them or we absolutely need a human to help us. What is a sophisticated transaction may change with the time. We can learn things and software can become better.

Today quite often even things like login or registration sometimes are difficult. An example across which I came a few times are „master sites“ and afiliated sites, like „SwissPass“ and the Swiss Federal Railroad (SBB) or „Miles and More“ and the site of an airline within the system. This allows for a login via the master site, but also for a direct login bypassing the master site, where we do not necessarily have an account. Getting this right technically and UX-wise is a challenge. But the concepts exist. Yes, it is non-trivial identity management.

And quite often sites just do not work. I tried to register on some sites and gave up. It is necessary to enter 8 pieces of information. If one of them is wrong, the other 7 need to be entered again. Ok, they come from auto completion of the browser, maybe. Phone numbers and dates fields often do not work well. Date fields should always accept ISO-format like „2016-07-16“ besides a date format that is commonly used in the locale of the user, like „16.07.2016“ in Germany and Switzerland (though the official format is ISO). This is ugly, but can be handled, if the desired format is mentioned in the form. Often a calendar widget is useful, because it helps us know the weekday, but in case of the birth date we rarely need it for that reason. The phone number is very often a problem. There are so many variants to this, but actually starting with a „+“ and separating groups of digits with spaces should at least work. That is another issue. Quite a few forms fail because of leading or trailing spaces, which we hardly see and which we sometime get into the form when using copy+paste.

I remember the nightmare of installing Oracle 10-15 years ago. There was a „comfortable“ installer, written in Java (Java 1.1). Everything worked fine and then the installer failed with some red alarm, without any obvious way out, other than do it once again. Of course professional Oracle admins never used this installer and got it right within a day. But leaving the user in a „nightmare“ situation without any visible way out of this is a clear UX anti pattern. Even if I am no way a UX specialist but just an ordinary user I can tell.

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