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The world’s biggest secret industry – and why your organisation might be a part of it

The world’s biggest secret industry – and why your organisation might be a part of it

Earlier this month, a visit to an industry conference had me travelling first by air, and later finishing the journey by train. On arrival I exited the train station in what I would describe as a routine manner. The following day, my journey was to unfold in reverse as I made my way home.

I visited the station early the next morning to check timetables to the airport. Train time duly noted, I left to grab a coffee. It was only on returning to catch the train that I learned a replacement bus service would be taking me on my trip to the airport – and I should expect the journey to take up to an hour longer.

I was dumbstruck. How could this happen? How could I pass through the train station twice, once within hours of travelling, and only find out this vital information at the point of travel?

Replaying my arrival over and over in my head, I wondered had I missed some obvious signs or notices. The train operator had put the onus on the traveller to find this information for themselves. On closer inspection, I found dotted around the station a number of inconspicuous pieces of A4 paper notifying passengers of the change.

“It’s almost as if this experience had been designed to be bad”, I thought to my myself… and then another thought struck me. What if it had been deliberate? What if a mischievous influence had been at work – a hidden industry that never sleeps and never rests, an industry whose sole intent is to produce bad consumer and customer experiences, day in, day out.

All too often, this fantasy doesn’t seem very far fetched. Some of the experiences we regularly tolerate as consumers couldn’t be any more badly designed if conscious effort was applied.

Perhaps my public transport example is an unfair one. Perhaps it’s wrong to generalise based on a single service that fails us so regularly. So cast your mind back over the last few days; how many times have you been adversely affected by poor experiences, as a user or consumer?

That website that just plain refused to provide you with the information you wanted the most. The computer interface that was more of a hindrance to you than a help. The call that had you on hold for what felt like an hour (maybe it was an hour!). The online form that had you wishing you had called into a branch instead. Do any of these sound familiar?

There are companies and services known to each of us that regularly provide badly–designed experiences. The sad truth is, they don’t even know it. It might sometimes make itself known via a customer complaint, or an unpaid invoice, or maybe a string of adverse comments on social media. It remains a rare event for organisations to see that, for all of their intent, for all of the resources they apply, and for all of the pride in what they provide to customers, very often the common factor linking all of those same customers can be a negative experience of their brand.

The confirmation bias that influences how services perceive their own offering is a powerful force. Assumptions that, because customers exist at all, that they are loyal and delighted with the service they are receiving, lead to a blinkered view of the world.

Meanwhile, the Secret Industry of Bad Experiences rumbles on, inexorably grinding out another series of beautifully–executed customer experience disasters. While hapless customers wonder how anything could possibly have been thought through so poorly.

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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