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Aaaargh, this is driving me nuts!!!

Most digitizations are intended to make everyday life easier for users but can also lead to frustration and powerlessness.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 2/11/2021

You find yourself standing in the self-service checkout in Føtex, doing your best to scan your items and place them on the small square that check-weighs them.

If you place an item slightly outside the square, the transaction stops and you can’t continue until you’ve wrestled it back in the pile on the damned square again.

- Hardly user-friendly, says Connie Svabo, Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and co-author of the new book Digital Life.

The digital jack-in-office

Among other things, she researches in hybrid experience architectures: What happens when a human and a piece of technology have to interact in a physical space. The self-service checkout is but one example. Another could be when we have to register parking at the hospital, check in and out with our Rejsekort, buy access to payment toilets or find our bearings on digital displays that, for example, guide us to a shop in the shopping centre.

- When standing there and having to serve ourselves, we sometimes encounter a system that behaves like a jack-in-office, while other systems act more like friendly service staff. It’s the digital jack-in-office that gets our blood boiling, she says.

A digital system can certainly be caring in its encounter with users. Such systems require the least possible effort from users and offers alternatives and the opportunity to negotiate with the system

Connie Svabo, Professor

The digital jack-in-office wants things on its own terms, not the user's. The jack-in-office is rigid and cannot be bargained with, offering no alternatives. For example, you may only be allowed to pay with a Dankort, and if you’re a child or foreigner, well ... tough luck. The front desk system may also require you to download dedicated apps or sign up before you can interact with it.

But there are also digital, friendly service staff who are prepared for the fact that the user for various reasons, for example, does not own a Dankort, and therefore offers other payment methods.

- A digital system can certainly be caring in its encounter with users. Such systems require the least possible effort from users and offers alternatives and the opportunity to negotiate with the system, says Connie Svabo.

In the book “Digital Life” she provides some examples on digital systems, that are more or less userfriendly:

Rejsekortet vs. Brobizz

Good: Brobizz. It’s easy and effortless for the user: With a Brobizz, simply drive towards the barrier and the system handles the rest. The same thing applies if you choose to pay via licence plate recognition.

Bad: The travel card ‘Rejsekortet’. Rejsekortet places certain demands on the user. You must check in at the start of your trip and check out at the end of your trip. If you forget to check out, you need to get an app other than the Rejsekortet app to fix this. If you forget to check out three times in a year, your card may be blocked. If your card is blocked, you can only buy a new one after 12 months.

The self-service checkouts in Føtex vs. IKEA

Good: At IKEA, you grab a scanner and can move around to scan your items. Once you’ve scanned your items, you can place them wherever you want.

Digital technologies are increasingly forming a separate layer on top of our physical world. I am interested in how the physical space and digital systems are mixed and how humans are affected by this.

Connie Svabo, Professor

Bad: In Føtex, you have to stand in front of a scanning station, where you have to place the barcode on the item against a permanently mounted scanner. Next, you must place your items in a bag in a rack standing on top of a small square where your items are weighed. If you don’t buy a bag or haven’t got one that fits in the rack, you must stack your items on the square in such a way that they keep inside the square. Only after you’ve finished stacking and paying, you’re allowed to put your items in your basket (or whatever you’ve brought along and doesn’t fit in the rack) to carry them home.

Pay toilets at Danish stations vs. German motorways

Good: German motorway toilets allow you to pay with both cash and cards. If you have neither, and it’s a matter of urgency, for example with a child that has to go, you can crawl under or through the stall. In that way, the system is open to negotiation with you: You're supposed to pay, but you can get in without paying when the chips are down.

Bad: At Danish train stations you also have to pay to use the toilet. You have to use a credit card. But here the ‘message’ from the system is different: The door is massive, it's a physically solid piece of architecture, and it's impossible to get into the stall, no matter how urgent it is. Here, negotiation isn’t an option.

Illustration: Anders Boe and Mikkel Larris, SDU

Meet the researcher

Connie Svabo is Professor of STEM Education and Science Communication at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Her fields of research include experience, technology and design.


Editing was completed: 11.02.2021