How to use technology to ruin your service

The rule is simple …

Technology is there to serve people. Not the other way around. 

No exceptions.

In the hierarchy between people and technology – people are at the top.


Technology should make life easier, not harder.

It should things faster, simpler, less painful.

It should help, guide and teach us.

But too often it fails.

It breaks, it gives poor results, it can be unreliable, unstable and despite our best intentions, it often does this when we most need it.

But that doesn’t matter.


… because good design, good human-centred design knows that no technology is infallible and plans for this to happen.

Good design plans for technology failures. Big (everything fails), little (inconvenience) and everything in between.

[At this point, we could substitute the word design with service]

But … good design (service) always gives the final responsibility to a human.

Humans are not perfect – but they are better at managing computer service failures better than any computer is. If your computer system isn’t working – don’t (ever) use a computer to fix the problem. Use a person. People don’t want an automated notification, they want someone to say ‘sorry’ and answer their questions about how/when/if the problem will be fixed.

Too often though, we see technology as a magic bullet, able to solve complex human service problems.

So lets look at a case study in how not to implement technology. A brilliant example about Swiss Railways explained here by the BBC. This is worth highlighting, not because of the failure of Swiss Railways, but as an example of technology failure with many railway companies across Europe. Swiss are not alone in failing to implement technology to make things better – but they do stand out in terms of the failure to put people first.

Instead of using technology to improve service, to help customers self-ticket, to allow last minute bookings and changes, to move to cheaper, faster and more customer centric design, they provide a case study in how not to do it.

They are not alone … British trains have yet to adopt e-tickets, you still need to print them out a station. You cannot display a ticket on a phone – although I can when I fly. I cannot update my ticket or change it online – as I have a paper ticket – I need to take this into a station to change it.

Dutch Rail seems to want to only accept Dutch credit cards outside of Amsterdam … with ticket machines rarer than hens teeth outside of Schipol. Trains are great, but many times I have needed to find a cash machine to buy a ticket at a machine. Welcome to the credit card era!

These recent Swiss changes win though. Perhaps their experience of technology is better than mine – or that of their travellers and of BBC writers.

So a quick lesson for all companies…

Technology has great potential, but it fails. Plan for this. Give people the authority and respect to make the best decision and you will be fine. Build a system where technology is in charge, and you have a recipe for bad service and unhappy customers.

Just assuming one simple fact could have transformed the Swiss experience … TECHNOLOGY FAILS.

So, the ticket machine doesn’t work. Pay on the train. Add a small surcharge, but still keep the customer happy.

if the machine fails, you should be apologising NOT fining passengers.

Ah, but Swiss Rail respond – we want to disincentivise travel without a ticket. We want to stop passengers not paying.

And so do your law-ibiding travellers, which are likely to be the majority.

So do that. Employ ticket inspectors, but allow them use judgement. Capture credit card details. Fine on the second or third infringement. Identify patterns of evasion. Use the technology to solve YOUR problem, not make life harder for the customer.

Unless you don’t care about unhappy customers … then you really have problems.


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