Designing for Humanity: The Role of Techno-Admin and Ethical Considerations in Microtransactions

Techno-admin: a pervasive phenomenon, whereby we customers are forced into infuriating, confusing, absurdly time-consuming and bleakly unrewarding tasks by a machine - Jamie Bartlett

We are all techno-administrators today. The average person has about 100 passwords to keep track of, a spiralling number of emails to scan, file or delete, and a dizzying array of notifications and alerts vying for our attention. And that’s just at work.

As we pass the peak of inflated expectations around artificial intelligence and the benefits it will bring, it’s worth reflecting where techno-utopianism has got us so far.

Simon Penny describes perfectly a moment we can all identify with

I spend the majority of my days absorbed in a screen of some form or another. My kids don’t understand that when I’m looking at my phone whilst I’m cooking them dinner, I’m likely to be either working, paying for their school trip, downloading their homework, or checking if the central heating is working properly. It’s arguably these constant microtransactions that are amongst the most damaging to our mental health, because they are stealing our free time.

A friend of mine has two children at different schools and reckons he gets over 100 notifications each week, all which serve to nag the parent to perform some admin function previously done by the school itself.

Whilst I can’t imagine life without Monzo, Amazon, Google Maps, or Spotify, for every great digital experience there are three or four others seemingly designed to engage us in eternal torment.

I did a workshop recently with some customers and there was a real sense that the smallest task of dealing with companies was getting harder not easier, or as one said “it all works perfectly well until something goes wrong.”

The impact of the internet on customer service is not universally positive. Challenges such as information overload, the potential for miscommunication, and the depersonalisation of interactions have arisen. An organisation’s administrative tasks can now be easily fobbed off onto us users.

The move to digitise our interactions ‘for our convenience’ has hugely benefited corporations and institutions, because when something does go wrong, they have previously unimagined powers of ownership-avoidance.

As John Sills writes,

Lack of ownership is, I think, the biggest problem customers face at the moment. Problems passed from person to person, department to department. And now, with platform providers a major part of our lives, company to company.

I’ve had friends tell me about a Deliveroo order that was missing the rice, which Deliveroo blamed on the restaurant, and then refused to take the order back, leaving it in a bag outside their house.

I’ve heard tales of someone buying a pack of specialist sausages for Oktoberfest, which were ‘delivered’ by being thrown over the gate, left to the mercy of the local hungry fox. The shop blamed the delivery company, but surely, they chose them in the first place?

The UK Post Office scandal has captured the public imagination not only because of a television show, but because it captures a public mood of being increasingly in thrall to a faceless technocracy.

As Jamie Bartlett says in his brilliant piece for UnHerd

We are all sub-postmasters these days: each of us daily dealing with computer systems which make our lives harder. How much of your workday is taken up with tasks like the following: filling in a lengthy online form, which crashes just as the finish line draws near; spending hours trying to cancel an online subscription; coming face-to-face with the dreaded “Schrödinger’s account”: you try to sign into it using your email address, only to be told there is no such account; you try to create a new account with the same email address, and you are told one already exists.

It’s the bane of my work life when I keep hearing that customers want a ‘virtual service’ when in fact they are crying out for more humanity, and greater organisational ownership.

As Simon says in his piece

If we’re designing for humanity, we have to remember what we value about being human – our relationships, empathy for others, and a need to feel present and connected with ‘the real world’ around us

The machines that we were promised would make our lives easier have begun to make them harder. We need to keep a critical, even sceptical, eye on our organisations use of technology to ‘improve the customer experience’.

Ironically, in a world that has become obsessed with efficiency , speed, and digitisation, there is now opportunity to stand out by focusing on humanity, personalisation and connection.

Related: The Law of Propinquity and the Work From Home Dilemma