Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

So I got home late last night and opened a letter containing a replacement bank card. To activate it I had to call one of those automated phone lines. It taught me something interesting.

Though standing in the living room just a few feet from a landline phone, I reached for the phone that is always with me, the shiny computer in my pocket, with wifi, a web browser and a touchscreen so slick it has to defend against my disgusting human fingers with a lipophobic coating.

I entered the number (because, yes, this computer also makes calls!) and was greeted by a man from the Nineteen Eighties. This is going to be a breeze, I thought smugly. I’m a confident 24-hour e-banking consumer. I laugh in the face of paper bills. I sweep administrative trivia into the gaps of my a busy lifestyle.

“Now,” demands Nineneen Eighties Man, “using the keypad on your phone, enter your 16-digit card number followed by the hash key”.

The keypad on my phone? The keypad on my phone? My phone has a camera, a compass and an accelerometer. It tells the weather to save me the strain of looking out of the window. It has no need of a keypad!

So I tapped the bit of the screen that invokes a grid of numbers and began typing the 16-digit number from the front of the card. I stumbled and hit the back button. But Nineteen Eighties Man couldn’t hear the back button. In fact he told me to try again, then hung up on me!

I redialled and tried again. It struck me that my phone is great at correcting text as I slide across its surface, but cannot really help me when it comes to random numbers. I failed again and started to worry that if I didn’t get this right soon I’d be holding a useless lump of plastic (“committed to a PVC-free future” though my bank professes to be).

So I put away my phone of first choice and decided to battle the bank with a weapon they’d understand: a dusty DECT portable with big rubbery buttons and not much screen. “The keypad on your phone,” now I have your number Nineteen Eighties Man! Job done.

What did I learn?

Well first, for the banks, that when it comes to these little interactions, there will very soon be a mass of consumers out there for whom a mobile web interface is far more usable than an IVR one. If I have to enter a 16-digit number, let me do it in a form that has some foregiveness and doesn’t just hold me to the first number I press. Or even better, could I send you a photo of my card, or snap a 2d barcode sticker on it to show I’ve got it?

And for me, in being forced to switch between a touchscreen and keypad, I learned that entering anything, numbers, words, on a touchscreen is a fuzzier experience that requires more active looking, than the definite pressing of buttons from muscle memory. Even if you know vaguely where on the screen they virtual buttons are, and get tactile feedback after pressing them, the eyes still have a bigger role to play.

And that set me thinking. We’re about to see a change in people’s physical behaviour – from phone-clamped-to-side-of-head, to head-down-looking-at-phone. This isn’t just important to those of us who work on mobile media. It’s a big deal for anyone who offers services over the phone. It’s going to mean rethinking lots of things, because in a few more years people may not have that dusty DECT phone as backup.

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