Sunday, October 16, 2011

Innovation thwarts multitasking

The way we pay for things has improved tremendously over the last couple of decades. As a student, I still had to go to the bank to retrieve money. To get that money I needed special forms that the bank sent me on a semi-regular basis, but that would sometimes run out. Now we just need a debit card that can be used everywhere and worldwide.
Unfortunately, the latest development has made paying slightly more complicated, because designers have not payed attention to the human capacity and need for multitasking.
Just as a cultural sidenote: in the Netherlands, you are yourself responsible for bagging the groceries in the supermarket. As a consequence, you have two more-or-less parallel tasks at the cashier: you have to take care of the payment while at the same time bagging your groceries. One of the central ideas around multitasking that I will present in this blog more often is that problems in multitasking occur when we need two cognitive resources at the same time.
In the grocery case the contested resources is not mental, but it is your hands: bagging groceries typically requires two hands, while paying typically does as well.
In the "old" system, there was a good solution on how to allocate the "hands" resource:
  1. Take the debit card out of your wallet swipe it through the reader, and but it back in your wallet. Now but your wallet back in your pocket.
  2. Enter your pin number
  3. Now start bagging your groceries. If you keep up with the cashier, you have bagged your last item just after the cashier announces the total.
  4. The total will appear on the reader, and all you have to do is press the "yes" key.
  5. And that's it!
But now enter the new system. The new system no longer uses the magnetic strip, but a chip on the card. This is all more secure, but it is also technology and not usability. So bring out the trumpets, it is time for "het nieuwe pinnen"!
  1. You again bring out your card, and put it in the reader. But, now the label warns you "Don't take out the card until the transaction is finished!". So you leave it, but are now stuck with your wallet in your hands.
  2. You would like to bag your groceries now, but you first have to put your wallet away in order to free your hands.
  3. Hopefully you can now keep up with the cashier in bagging your groceries.
  4. Once this is done, the cashier announces the total.
  5. You now have to enter your pin, check the amount and press ok. You now have to wait until your transaction is approved.
  6. Only after the approval you can take out your card. But hey, where's my wallet? Hopefully it is in your pocket, and not at the bottom of your grocery bag.
Now, the disadvantage of this additional hassle may be minor compared to payment 20 years back at a time when people still use checks to pay groceries (are you listening US?), but still I wouldn't be surprised if it takes 5-10 seconds extra per customer. And although this may not seem much, it adds up: an additional cashier in a larger supermarket, or longer lines leading to more pointless waiting.

This example is a nice illustration of how multitasking can work well, and how it can go wrong, even though the situation can only be different in a small detail. In the old system the cashier and the customer could carry out their parts in parallel, while in the new system they have to wait for each other. The brain works in a similar way: if multiple tasks are lined up well, it can carry them out efficiently, but if they are not, delays and mistakes are the result.

No comments:

Post a Comment