Coffee Cup
Photo by macten.

Overheard in the line for coffee at the Austin Convention Center at SXSW earlier this month…

Customer: Could I just get an empty cup?

Cashier: Yeah, but I have to charge you for a coffee. That’s $2.75.

Customer: For a paper cup?

Cashier: (Embarrassed.) I know, but they count the cups, so we have to sell the cups at full price. Basically, we sell cups.

Customer: (Sighs.) Okay, fine, I’ll pay for it. I’ll take the small cup.

Cashier: (Uncomfortable. Glances back at the manager.) The small cup is for our specialty coffees, so that one is $4.75.

Customer: The small cup costs $2 more than the large cup? $4.75, just for an empty paper cup?

Cashier: (In obvious pain.) I know. Sorry, there’s nothing I can do.

Trapped

Both the cashier and customer were trapped by the coffee stand’s dubious accounting system (the number of cups apparently have to match up with the amount of cash in the till). Want a cup? Five bucks.

“We sell cups.” Well, no, they don’t; that’s just how the (coffee) bean counters see it. To customers, they sell coffee, and the cup is just an incidental vehicle, zero value. The imposition of this lame internal system on the actual transaction allowed no flexibility or judgment on the part of the cashier, and turned the real-world expectations of the customer upside down. Frustration on both sides of the counter.

It struck me as a useful reminder for interactive designers and developers: For customers, the end experience is way more important than how things work under the hood. How does my code-based view of software and site design seep into my interfaces to conflict with users’ goals or expectations? What kind of dopey trade-offs or ridiculous conundrums do I unintentionally impose?

Experiences should be tailored to the customer’s understanding of the task at hand. How it actually works behind the scenes should be invisible. It’s about the coffee, not the accounting.

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