Thursday 22 March 2012

What we can learn from PayPal's shunning of skeuomorphic design

Skeuomorph is an interesting word.

It's from the Greek for vessel/tool (skeuos) and shape (morphe) and is basically used to describe something which retains the design cues from an original product, even when these aren't necessary anymore. Examples would include digital music players which have the look and feel of a real-world device like a car radio or online calendars that present information in the style of a paper, month by month calendar.

In many ways, a Skeuomorph is positive as it allows us to transition from the old to the new; letting people understand how something works as it replicates the look and feel of the original. The example below shows how the iphone calculator look and feel is based heavily on the extremely popular 1977 Braun ET44 calculator, even down to the button colouring.


However, skeuomorphs can also hold our thinking back. Rather than trying to re-think a problem with newly available technology, it is sometimes easier to try and transfer the existing solution into a new medium.

Digital advertising for example simply tried to transfer the understanding and heritage of the physical world into the digital. The direct mail campaign morphed into the email campaign and the outdoor poster into the banner ad. It took a different kind of thinking from a young upstart called Google to approach it in another way back in 2000. Google did away with the visual aspects and instead focused on the relevancy, linking text based adverts to search terms. Combined with their innovation around ranking/click-thrus, this helped propel Google to the number 1 position.

Google hasn't done too well in another domain however - namely digital wallets. When people talk about digital wallets, they discuss taking your existing payment cards, loyalty cards and paper coupons and essentially digitising these into a smart phone application. Indeed, the Google Wallet even shows a representation of a credit card so you can choose how to pay.


The problem with this though is it's trying to solve a problem people don't have and doing it by simply moving what people have and do today into another medium. In reality, you are simply exchanging a leather folder for a smart phone - it's skeuomorphic design. What it's not really doing is challenging how people pay.

Of course, I'm not a payments expert, so I'll leave it to someone who is, namely Jack Stephenson, Director of Mobile, E-Commerce and Payments at JP Morgan Chase who said:-

"Consumers don't really have a mobile payment problem. Ninety-five percent of the time, paying with cash and credit cards actually works pretty well. Consumers have a mobile shopping problem. There's a difference."

While I agree with the first part of Jack's observation, I don't really agree with the latter. Consumers don't have a mobile shopping problem either, they have a money management problem - and many of them don't even realise it.

As I've discussed in a previous blog, if we're going to change how consumers pay, we should take the opportunity to change how consumer think about payments. Instead of being bounded by a skeuomorphic requirement to replicate the old, we should look to invent the new.

And that's just what PayPal have done.

Paypal are looking to reinvent our relationship with money. Not just our physical money or payment cards, but all of our liquid assests, from loyalty points to gift cards. If it can be converted into cash, PayPal will let you use it.

To support this they have separated the decision to purchase from the method of purchase. After buying through PayPal you then have 7 days to indicate how you'd like to pay for the item and this could be from a combination of:-

  • Money you've saved for it such as a travel savings
  • Money you have on a retailers gift card
  • Money you have in loyalty points from a frequent flyer
  • Money you have in your checking/current account
  • Money you have access to from your credit card
  • Money you don't have access to yet - so it lets you spread the cost over 3 equal payments

Any and all of these types of funds can be used to pay for the transaction. Now you can save for something and then literally pay for it from your savings.

It's worth watching the following videos from Finextra to see how really revolutionary this is.

Skeuomorphs can help us to transition people from the old to the new, but holding onto the old can also limit our ability to truly transform how we do business.

For loyalty, the collecting of points hasn't really changed fundamentally since the original paper stamps back in the 1930'. Even Google startup Punchd is simply transferring the paper punchcard to a smart phone medium.

Maybe it's time to rethink loyalty recognition for a new era. #gamification

Sunday 11 March 2012

If Apple did loyalty...

Grand canyon leap

I was updating one of my Blackberry phone apps this week - something I'd been putting off for a while as I know from experience what a chore this can be.

Having managed to login, navigate the cumbersome menus and download the application, I was then prompted to re-boot my phone.  After what felt like 5 minutes, but was probably closer to 2, my phone was rebooted and I was finally back in with my updated application.

I could say I've been spoilt with my Apple devices.  Their app store just works.  It's not the most beautiful application in the world, but it certainly sets the standard currently for how it should work.  It also doesn't need a reboot after it's installed an update, which is why I'm updating numerous apps daily.

This difference all comes down to the user experience.

I'm reading the Steve Jobs biographyat the moment and this is one of the things that becomes immediately apparent - he cared about the user experience.  He may not have expressed it particularly well in dealing with staff, but he certainly knew what was right and wrong (most of the time).

In one part of the book it discusses how he was disappointed with the boot time of the Macintosh.  The engineer was initially reluctant to commit to being able to reduce it.  Jobs asked him if he would be able to shave 10 seconds of it if someones life depended on it - the engineer suggested he might be able to do it with that kind of thing at stake.   Jobs then went on to say:-

Well, let's say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and thats 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that's probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you've saved a dozen lives. That's really worth it, don't you think?"

It may not really have been life or death, but every user was thankful for the 28 seconds they ultimately saved as users today are also thankful for the "instant on gratification" offered by it's eventual successor, the MacBook Air.

User experience is a crucial aspect of all design - loyalty programmes included.  However it is also one of the things that can tend to get lost in the rush to actually deliver.

The integration is fastidiously planned, making sure all the systems connect.  The best hosting environments are sourced, making sure that data is protected and systems resilient.  The right rewards and communications plans are devised to encourage mutually beneficial behaviours.

However if the user experience sucks then despite all that hard work, customers may fall by the wayside.

As an example, I've recently tried to collect retrospective earnings on a frequent guest and a frequent flyer programme.  Either because I hadn't taken my card or hadn't logged it at the time of booking I needed re-claim my points/miles.  This is where the user experience started to break down.

Both un-releated programmes required me to send correspondence to a designated address with my proof of purchase.  Correspondence is a quaint word and it's also a quaint concept.  Really?  You want me to write a letter, put it in an envelope and send it to an international address - just to claim loyalty miles.

Ok, so one of them also provided an electronic version - I could fax it.  Now, I'm old enough to remember faxes becoming mainstream communication devices - but I'm also old enough to know they are dead.  Sure we still have some dotted around for some reason, but it's not for everyday communication.  However, I did try faxing it - twice.  Nothing.

Eventually I phoned up the frequent guest programme who i'd been collecting with for a while and established that they did indeed have an email address (unpublished) which I could send a scan to.  One web browse, two faxes, one phone call and one email later I have my points.

This gap between my intention (to claim my points) and the allowable actions (the tools provided to claim) is defined as the "Gulf of Execution" by user experience pioneer, Donald Norman and is the same problem that prevents people from using their microwave or programming their PVR.   In describing the gulf of execution, Wikipedia states:-

Usability has as one of its primary goals to reduce this gap by removing roadblocks and steps that cause extra thinking and actions that distract the user's attention from the task intended, thereby preventing the flow of his or her work, and decreasing the chance of successful completion of the task

The chance of successful completion of the task and on who/how many complete it will ultimately depend on the balance between the strength of intention and the size of the gulf.

In the case of the frequent guest programme, my invested interest in the programme meant i'd try harder to finish my intention of claiming miles.  However, the frequent flyer programme didn't fare so well.  I'd only just joined and so had no invested interest in it and so no reason to waste my time.  In fact, it was worse than that - it wasn't that I didn't earn the points, it actually felt like i'd had them taken away.  This resulted in not just "better luck next time" but "there won't be a next time", I'll just fly with someone else.

Whether it's how members login, how they redeem for rewards or how they claim for missing points, the user experience is a key aspect for any loyalty programme.

A faster starting computer, downloading app or easier retro claim may not actually save lives, but as Apple continues to demonstrate it could certainly help to save customers and that is the whole point after all.