Fresh: rant

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 5
Digital Citation

“Help yourself!

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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If by any chance you've flown with a major US airline recently, you may have had the opportunity to check in all by yourself at a gleaming, self-service kiosk. These systems have been up and running since 2002, says SITA, a service provider of IT business solutions to the air-transport industry responsible for this travesty. "Customer acceptance of the self-service option has been high," they claim on their Web site, in a case study for this project (

Perhaps. But we will have to just stand in line.

Understanding that many travelers do not check bags (Fear of mishandling? Lost luggage? Knowing that 50 minutes is truly not enough time for both you and your checked baggage to make it onto that connecting flight?), it would seem that the kiosks are a great idea. That is, if there is paper in the system to print your boarding pass. If you don't need to make a special request not included on the checklist. If your name is spelled exactly the same on your passport, your ticket, and the credit card you used to pay for it. If you don't expect to qualify for an upgrade. If you don't need a replacement boarding pass, need to check your seating assignment, or don't have time to type in the names of your extended family traveling with you...

It is the same sad story: Features get loaded into a system, but the way in which they should interact was never determined. The results are similar to other poorly designed software: substandard service and substandard results. So would we be willing to wait in a long line? Even that is becoming less and less an option.

One of us recently arrived at Narita airport in Japan, where there was no option but to use the self-service check-in system. To add to the miseries reported elsewhere (see James Bach's blog at for his personal tale of woe), at this particular airport all travelers were lined up haphazardly with counter personnel dashing to and fro, helping every single customer use the terminal. To make it more "efficient," the next customer checked in to the terminal while another stood at the counter checking bags.

A family of four was poking timidly at the kiosk next to me when I dutifully followed the instruction of the line coordinator and marched to a kiosk, input my frequent-flyer number, and... nothing. After three tries I used a different method—typed my name. Oops, hyphens, that didn't work. Hmm. Let's try scanning the passport. Scanning the passport... scanning, scanning, scanning. After the fifth try, the counter person took pity and helped me, saying he usually does not have to do much but watch. While this was happening, the helpful line coordinator, sensitive to time, had pushed the next set of customers to the kiosk right behind me, ensuring that any data I input would entertain them. After 20 minutes of time-saving exasperation, the kindly counter person took less than ten minutes to correct the problems, issued my boarding pass, and wished me a pleasant journey. The family of four next to me was still struggling.

Why point fingers at the airline industry? This is just an example of the greetings users receive from a system of interactions designed to provide assistance. From phone companies to printers, we are all confronted with poorly designed self-service systems. They desperately need our help. Without it, self-service is merely a company telling you: "Go figure it out for yourself, and if you can't, talk to our Web site. Call us and talk to our friendly robot. Or just go into a quiet room and shout at the walls. It will make you feel better—really."—<eic>

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