By Dan Gavshon-Brady
How our ‘helpful’ technology is getting in the way.
Getting the tube every morning is a monotonous experience, so any small change to the routine is discernible. An increase of signs (as above) posted near ticket barriers, warning against ‘Card Clash’, has caught the eye recently.
Card Clash occurs when commuters tap in using their Oyster card but also have a contactless credit card in the same wallet or sleeve. It can result in punters paying extra, confusing the machines and causing queues to build up, especially in rush hour, when time means money and the platforms are crowded. It is not a new issue, but for TFL it is an increasing concern with the rising prevalence of contactless cards.
This prompts several questions about our reliance on helpful technology.
Technology, conventional wisdom presumes, makes our lives easier and run more smoothly. TFL’s Oyster card system is a great example of excellent service design which does this (even if the technology’s hastening of ticket office closure has been met with industrial action). Contactless card payments and transport apps, whether CityMapper or Hailo, do the same.
We carry more and more of this technology on our bodies at all times. Oyster cards, smartphones (connected to sensor-enabled thermostats like Hive and Nest), FitBit and FuelBand, contactless credit cards and building or key fobs. We carry so much that it can become a physical and financial hindrance, as with Card Clash. People can be put out of pocket from this, but there is a larger issue at play here.
Many of these services which we now keep so close to ourselves in fact come under the domain of fundamental, infrastructural utilities and sectors. These are absolutely necessary to the fabric of a society. For FitBit or FuelBand, read Health, for Oyster read Transport, for Nest read Energy and so on. Much of this is held together by smartphones, for which we would traditionally have read Telecommunications, even if all-pervasive software has disrupted how we conceive of communication.
It is debatable whether this is a positive social phenomenon, with our tacit acceptance of the transferal of responsibility to individuals from institutions on issues like health, energy savings, and public transport. Is it helpful to have your thermostat in your hands at all times? Or, as suggested recently on this blog, is mobile ‘on point’ better than ‘always on’? The technical ingenuity of a remotely-controlled washing machine is not in doubt; rather, could we not be spending our time doing something that has a bit more meaning?
However, that people seem so willing “to take control”, as the rhetoric goes, of these aspects of their lives reflects a loss of faith in our institutions. This surely presents an opportunity for brands in these fundamental areas of people’s lives to do something uniquely positive and helpful, not exploitative and cynical.
We should shoulder some responsibility for allowing ourselves to be duped into taking on the work of companies and institutions under the glistening veneer of technological progress. Rising fares, bills and unconnected, frustrating customer service whenever anything goes wrong do not suggest at progress or empowerment.
This is not an either-or argument, but a spectrum. It is not outlandish to suggest that we should bear some responsibility for how healthy our lifestyles are (although this recent, quite scary European Commission video seems to stretch the credibility of “taking control”), but in areas where infrastructural systems and contracts keep customer influence limited, is it fair that the customer assumes more and more responsibility? And especially if they do not know it?
Health, communication, transport and energy are vital to people’s lives. Brands who take responsibility and pride in this over anything else stand to build something quite remarkable for themselves and for the people who rely on them. Three starting points could be:
1) True customer-centricity (e.g. flexible billing structures which adapt according to usage)
2) Implementing effective two-way services which allows for inevitable errors in the system and doesn’t leave customers stranded twice
3) A focus, where relevant, on the real and collective benefits which technology can bring on a structural level, not the clandestine transferal of accountability to the individual customer
There are many great initiatives and features companies have created which harness the benefits that emerging technology can bring. Some may even bring happiness to millions of people. However, whilst they remain predicated on shifting the work to the customer, the concern of people living in a utility-seeking, always-on and individualistic environment persists.
Dan Gavshon Brady is a strategist at Wolff Olins London, you can follow him @DanGB88