Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The future is self-service

At the airport in New York the other week, I went to the counter of a Chinese restaurant to order some food for the long flight back to California. Nobody was at the counter, and nobody seemed to be paying any attention to me. And then I realized that the computers on the counter were facing the customers, not the staff. I was shocked. What a brilliant idea! How could nobody have thought of this before? Everywhere, businesses are finding ways to turn the computer to face the customer: all banks now have ATMs, most airlines have self-checkin kiosks, some grocery stores have self-checkout stands, and now restaurants are experimenting with lettering customers place their own orders.

The key change that's allowing self-service to expand, and the sticking point that causes it to fail and frustrate when done poorly, is user interface design. Remember old checkout interfaces at grocery stores? The green text on white screens, the cashiers furiously keying in codes? The amount of time needed to learn a system like that made self-service impossible. Self-service checkstands now have big colorful buttons with pictures, and, most importantly, fewer options. In the best-designed self-service grocery stores, you just scan the barcodes of all of your items. It doesn't get much simpler than that. Where self-checkout doesn't work as well is where this simplicity breaks down - most notably, when you have to tell the system which fruits or vegetables you are weighing. Some grocery stores fix this by packing produce and putting barcodes on them.

Impact Dialing is doing something similar with auto dialing. It used to take an expert to set up an auto dialer: there were a massive number of settings and options to configure, you'd have to install special hardware and software in your call center, and you'd need consulting and training from your auto dialer company to set things up and learn how to use the system. We've taken away all of that pain: made everything web-based, so there's nothing to install; simplified complicated settings and used plain English in our interface; and made the whole thing available to anybody who wants to try it out.

Are you creating beautifully-designed self-service tools? Have you used any that made your day? Or that made you angry because they didn't work as well as having a real person work with you? Leave a comment!