Failure is always an option

We talk about failure a lot in design – we embrace the idea of making mistakes and learning from them as a fundamental part of the design process. Simply, we strive to fail early on, so those who use our creations don’t have to experience what it feels like to have a process or product fall to pieces on them. With this in mind, it makes it all the more infuriating when you see a situation where the very idea of failure has not been considered to the level it should have been – we can’t cap off every possible problem, so shouldn’t we be assuming that failure is always an option, and design for it?

Recently, my bank pitched me into a well-worn friction point, which casual conversation reveals as something that a lot of people have faced at some point or other. My debit card got declined online, and so began my stumbling trek through a catalogue of missed opportunities, where my bank could have knocked my socks off with their insight and a kick-ass response to my problems. Instead, they screwed up my whole week.

It turned out that the bank had put the block on my card due to their assessment that it was at risk of fraud. They couldn’t tell me why – as in, it wasn’t even on their screen, and there was no way for them to find out. The computer said ‘no’. When pressed for more, they gave me a series of reasons why they weren’t allowed to tell me, veering from the insulting (that my account could be under police investigation), to the downright infuriating (they were concerned about defaming a retailer that could turn out to be innocent), of which all or none could be the reason for my woes. So, they seemed happy to vaguely imply that my account could be involved in something worthy of the police taking a look, but weren’t comfortable pointing to a potentially dodgy retailer that might be responsible for my card having its wings clipped. As much as the customer service agent was polite, courteous, and genuinely apologetic, she seemed as much of a passenger in the whole thing as I did.

The solution? Issue a new card, canceling the old one – immediately. To go from a casual phone call to find out why I couldn’t complete an online payment, to finding out that I was having access to my current account pulled out from under me was like a check-up at the dentist turning into full-blown root canal treatment. Having to exist in the cardless netherworld for ‘7-10 days’ was a bit of an issue, given we’re talking about my main bank account. Add in the fact that the account’s still registered to an address back in Scotland, and in the blink of an eye, I’m in the run up to payday with no way of getting to my money, with auto-topup on my Oyster locked out, and unable to book train tickets for my trip back up to Scotland at the end of the week. For an industry that is so heavily interested in online banking and paper-free billing, there’s a still a horrible reliance on inflexible postal addresses when things fall outside the scope of a digital solution – add in the rise of the Early Learning Centre-style card reader as part of online security, and the inherently mobile concept of mobile banking is suddenly tied to the arbitrary address where I’ve left that little plastic artefact.

In contrast, consider Kuoni, a UK travel agent – a couple I know flew out with them on honeymoon in December, during the infamous snowy weather that shut down Britain’s airports. Their flight was delayed, and eventually cancelled, meaning they left a day late from Scotland, and had a day cut off their holiday – throughout, Kuoni were constantly in contact by phone, keeping the couple up to date, rebooking their flights repeatedly as the situation changed. When they eventually arrived at their resort, Kuoni informed them that as a result of the lost day, they’d be happy to reschedule all their return flights to a day later than planned, and give them an extra day’s stay in the hotel to ensure they didn’t miss out on any of the holiday they’d booked – if that suited. The couple tell that story more than they talk about the holiday itself, and I tell people about it because it’s such a fantastic example of unexpectedly superb customer service. The failure that they handled so well is now the very reason I’d recommend them, and I didn’t even go on the trip.

Although I’ve pulled together a fairly specific group of events with the banking example (and thrown a spanner in the works by not keeping my bank-registered address up to date), they’re all things that should have been considered independently as entirely plausible problems that a customer could encounter – a card being blocked due to fraud, a customer only having one card when it’s going to be cancelled, and the idea that someone might not have access to their registered address to receive a replacement. These are common failure situations – pathways through a part of the service that the organisation might not want to happen, but must accept as real possibilities – something which Kuoni have clearly done. Spend time making these experiences as good as the ones you want your customer to go through, and you’ll have people singing your praises. It’s not just about avoiding a problem, or using customer feedback to shape your services, it’s about dealing with the unfolding situation in a way that makes that customer stop focusing on the negative issue, and on their surprise that you’ve dealt with it in such a seamless, elegant manner. Do that, and it’s less likely a customer’s journey is going to end in what they recognise as failure.

Designers are comfortable with failing because we learn from it every day, and use it to evolve our work. Companies need to learn in the same manner, and turn the dead ends in their service provision into moments that their customers will remember for all the right reasons.

Image courtesy of Patrick Lauke. Please note: I don’t bank with HSBC, and this article isn’t about them – I’ve declined to name the bank in question.

  1. Really well written and thought-out post, bud. Interesting that you didn’t mention the bank. Is this for the sake of courtesy or privacy? Either way, good stuff (and good luck!)

    • I guess my main reasoning is that it’s very easy for something like this to come across as a rant, which I didn’t want this post to be. Cheers though!

    • Chris Evans
    • August 1st, 2011

    Interesting that Natwest now has the ability to allow you to withdraw cash from a machine after you have lost your card in emergencies. If anyone has used this system, would love to hear if the process works.

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