Rory Sutherland

Cruel boy errors

From train booking systems to customer support, the opportunities are endless

Cruel boy errors
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Perhaps you are slightly concerned about your son. At present he is sitting in the crawlspace beneath your home wearing a clown costume, gleefully pulling the legs from crane flies and waiting for the cover of darkness so he can set light to your neighbours’ sheds.

Well, no need to worry.

You see, 50 years ago the only possible future for people like this lay in becoming a serial killer or, failing that, joining the secret police in a brutal dictatorship. But now, thanks to the wonders of technology, there are almost limitless openings for people of a sadistic disposition.

To date the most prized job for the aspiring young sociopath has been designing the user interface for the ticket machines at railway stations. First, someone had to make sure the touch screens were so flaky that at any one time eight letters on the keyboard don’t work*. And, while an intuitive system might recognise that someone who painstakingly inputs the letters P… A… D… may well be looking to travel to Paddington, a major London railway terminus, our cunning sadist has put a stop to this: the machine offers you a ticket to Padstow instead. You have then to delete the PAD and start typing L… O… N… D… O… N… [Space] P… Even then the machine often fails to display the cheapest tickets. And if you want to collect a pre-booked ticket, it requires not only a credit card but a collection code that looks as though it’s been produced by an Enigma machine.

But there are sadistic opportunities in the private sector, too, and where better than a large e--commerce site? First there is the fun of making it almost impossible to find a telephone number to call,-ideally by burying all contact information at the end of a long series of links.

Then there’s further pain inflicted by never giving the customer any choice over how the item is delivered (even Amazon, whose customer service is mostly exemplary, fails here). If I am ordering a USB cable, a tiny SD card or a paperback book, I want you to put it in the post.

My postman knows where I live, arrives at the same time every day and knows what to do if I am out — and he is passing my door anyway. But that would be far too painless when you can force me to get out of the bath to answer the door tosome random van driver so you can save 15p.

Best fun of all is that nefarious web-design practice where it is really easy to subscribe to something, but almost impossible to cancel it.

There are plenty of these mysterious annoyances in the tech world which should have been solved by now. Email is a mess. No one has developed a system for micropayments. And, while the ability to pay for parking on a mobile phone is extremely useful, there are now so many different, non-interoperable systems that I now need four apps on my mobile phone to park in just one town. Would it be that hard to make the systems work together?

And why is so little progress made in making it easier to receive deliveries? The UK is not large, and an open network of perhaps only 2,000 lockers would transform online shopping. I suspect that if Stephenson, Brunel or Bazalgette were alive today, they would have solved these things in a matter of months.

* A reader tells me that difficulty with touch screens is partly a factor of age: as your skin becomes drier in your late forties and beyond, apparently, touch screens work less and less well. One solution is to moisturise or, for more manly readers, simply to spit on your hands.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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