Okay, to get it out of the way, here’s my tech-cultural perspective: young enough to have had ATMs in my life pretty much forever, but old enough to remember a time when mechanical cash registers were being replaced by electronic machines, and to have worked in retail during the waning days of the “CHUNK-CHUNK” machine. (Those of you who are old enough will know just what I mean.)
So I have some long perspective on the wonderful world of retail transactions. And you know what? I don’t think they’re any faster – either “on average” or “in absolute terms” – than they’ve ever been.
Not that I think that the whole monstrous apparatus of bar-code scanners, rewards cards, credit card swipers, and their partner devices in the back (electronic inventory, information gathering technology) were developed for the benefit of the consumer. In fact, I am sure it wasn’t. But it nevertheless never fails to amuse me to watch all of the ways humans manage to dawdle, hem, haw, fluff, dither, waver, meander, and generally fluck up the easiest of transactions, making them take far longer than – with the benefit of all this snappy modern technology – they could be.
Standing in line at Safeway this morning, behind a guy who’d had to stand in line for a minute or two before I got there. Younger guy – late 20s, maybe – of seemingly normal intelligence, buying prepared food. A speedy-looking kind of guy. Convenience oriented. Not your typical suspect for line-stoppage (you know, grandmas, frazzled moms with obstreperous kids, garrulous older guys).
And yet, he stopped the line. The new card swipers at my local Safeway – just installed a couple of weeks ago – were apparently different enough from other card swipers he’d encountered to throw him off his stride.
There are a lot of choices to make and buttons to push in order to navigate even the simplest of transactions using the Safeway card swiper technology. If, like I do, you shop at Safeway regularly, you learn the system. It took me a couple of times through the line to get the sequence of “Yes” – “No” – “Enter PIN” down exactly, so now I fly through the line. Apparently the guy in front of me was in this same learning curve, because he spent a lot of time standing there, looking awkward, before glancing down at the swiper and realizing it was asking him to do more things. Things that he didn’t realize he needed to do. He’d already entered his PIN and accepted the amount to be charged, but there still remained a couple of screens. Did he want cash back? Did he want to donate money to a charity?
These are tiny little changes, and not a big deal, but this sort of thing happens all the time. And yes, people manage to slow things up even without new technology. Who hasn’t tapped an irritated foot while the nitwit ahead of us inline has spent valuable nanoseconds digging for a checkbook, clawing in a change purse, entering information wrong, forgetting what day it is, or any of a host of other dithery, slapdash, disorganized, confused, irritating little analog behaviors that waste everyone’s time? Thing is, wasn’t the new technology at the grocery store supposed to at least speed along the transactions with a plastic card? And yet… it hasn’t. Transaction times still don’t come even close to be as rapid as the technology would allow. Everywhere you go, you find people struggling to keep up with the beeping, whirring, flashing electronic whirligigs that are supposed to be making things faster.
Ever stand in line at an ATM, and watch people haltingly navigate their way through the prompts? They’re not stupid. It’s the technology. It is slowing them down. Every ATM seems to be designed to be *just* that tiny bit different from every other ATM. Deposit slots are in different places. Enter buttons are sometimes available both as a touch screen option *and* as a real, green, button, on the lower control panel. Questions change – you’re offered slightly different selections for where you want your money to come from – and do you want stamps with that? – and the sequence in which simple transactions are performed vary from one machine to the next.
And it’s not just financial transactions that are slowed by technology that should be speeding things up, and making the experience better.
At work, I am constantly amazed by how poorly – how slowly, ineptly, and with what fear and trepidation – people use their technology. And it isn’t just old people, like me. It’s 20 year olds! Folks who I am sure play a mean “Guitar Hero” and fritter away a good deal of their day on Facebook, but who simply don’t know how to work basic office stuff, like Outlook, or a local SharePoint site, or any of the relative complexities of Word and PowerPoint.
Businesses keep buying the new software, upgrading to Office 2010, for instance, and the employees writing the memos and filing the documents and making the presentations are still working as if on typewriters. Access databases are created would be better as a single page in an Excel workbook. Assistants place calls – “Is Mr. Gesundheit available on Thursday at 2:00pm?” – rather than use Outlook to access the executive’s “free/busy” information. Adobe can do amazing and marvelous things, and people are still making paper copies! Fillable forms get printed out and filed in with ballpoint pen. And I still get calls from people who can’t figure out an electronic filing system, make a table of contents in Word, or find the BIG RED “click here for more information!” button on the splash page of the new website.
Even with “fun” personal stuff, like cell phones and Facebook, there’s a lot of random hunting and pecking, embarrassed tittering about “hee hee – I never knew THAT was where you found it!” and general clueless stumbling around in the dark. And who among us has ever really used ALL of the functionality that comes loaded into our myriad devices? There are options I’ve never even explored – probably options I don’t know exist – on my current cell phone, and yet when I get a free one from my provider, I’ll probably “upgrade.” Why? Because the new phone will be new! And shiny!
And I won’t have a clue how to work it for the first few days. Just as I know that the next time I venture into a new retail establishment and wind up in front of a new card reader, I’ll probably stand there a minute or two with a perplexed look on my face, painfully aware that if I just knew where the right button was, I wouldn’t be holding up all those nice people behind me in line.
Maybe that’s because we haven’t gotten where we’re going yet. The current state of the art is a vast sea of competing operating systems, devices, options, apps, controllers, and whatnots. Maybe the tech world will move ineluctably toward an Apple-type model, with devices that talk to each other effortlessly, systems that everyone can use easily, with intuitive, voice-activated controls, interactive touch-screens that speak simple English (or Urdu or Greek or Farsi), give us directions that we can follow, and prompt us along the way.
If that’s going to be the case, I can’t wait. Because right now, we all seem to waste an inordinate amount of time waiting for all sorts of transactions and deliverables that technology was supposed to be helping up to sort out. Waiting for a call back, because Gemima just got a new cellie, and doesn’t have a clue how to work the voicemail. Dithering around by the printer, waiting for the last copies of that crucial report, because your assistant can’t navigate his way around a print dialogue box, and the new printer isn’t helping. Standing behind nitwits in lines that snake into the potato chip aisle, because every touchscreen card reader device is different from every other touchscreen card reader device, with prompts in a different order, the green “ENTER” button in a different location, and innovative sets of prompts (“Would you like to donate to Save the Sea Birds today? Press 1.”) that are a moving target of variability and complexity. Editing work done entirely by seat-of-the-pants workaround, done by someone who really thinks they KNOW PhotoShop.
Or maybe I’m right, and no matter how good the machines get, we really are too slow for our shiny fast technology. Maybe there always will be a disconnect between the potential for lightning fast transactions, seamless data management, and coordinated on-line work and the reality of how slowly and inexpertly we humans can learn and navigate these systems.Since I am FAR from being a tech professional, I’d be really interested in hearing informed comments from folks who have a better insight. In the meantime, I am waiting in line behind a bunch of people who are having trouble navigating the touch screen, reading a memo typed entirely in one cell of a table, and adorned with handwritten page numbers. :o)