Ignoring social inequality in design: poor customer experience

Sebastian Greger

As sociologists, we frequently use inequality as a lens to examine various dimensions of social life. A blog post by Jenny L. Davis illustrates how the non-use of technology (in this particular instance, due to lack of access) may not only be a manifestation of the so called “digital divide” - the topic of the original post - but how processes designed without inequalities in mind can lead to very poor customer experiences.

She describes a delayed flight causing a long queue at the airport for rebooking or accommodation arrangements. Only much later do people in the queue find out that it would have been possible to skip the queue by arranging alternatives online or by phone. As the airline’s hotel capacities are exhausted, the representatives announce that they can not assist the remaining passengers in their hotel arrangements but that they would be reimbursed later for a hotel room that they should find using the internet or by phones.

Treating some customers better at the expense of others

The author highlights two manifestations of inequality that are interesting from a designer’s point of view:

  1. There would have been a way to skip the line for those possessing both the equipment and skill to discover and use alternative means to solve it. A great service in itself, likely to provide a good share of customers with an excellent experience (apart from the issue that it took the staff three hours to inform about it).Yet, for those stuck in the line, the experience turns even worse looking at the happy faces of those who DIY’ed their onward journey.
    The design process for alternative tools to solve the situation should consider means to provide an at least comparable experience to those without a device or the ability to use them.

    • With the contingent of hotel rooms used up, the process in place relies on people to have personal devices, the ability and the cash to arrange for their own accommodation.
      The design obviously fails to accommodate the “non-default” case of travellers who are not able to care for themselves through a personal mobile device.

While the case illustrates the potential for the digital channel to deliver a good customer experience to some (probably including benefits such as a sped-up-process, cost savings and flexibility), it underlines the importance of “designing for non-users”, as in its current form it causes major disappointment with those not considered in the design.

An opportunity to create experiences in the physical space?

In addition, Davis makes a very specific observation on how the ability to use waiting time for socializing through mobile devices alters the social setup in the physical space (the “traditional” default case to be peers socializing with each other due to being stuck in common fate):

And our own social and productive use of mobile technologies, though a means of connection for us, become a mechanism of isolation for those without these technologies or without the capacities to use them. How many times, I wonder, did someone without access to the outside world look up in search of a an eyeball, only to find so many of the eyeballs gazing intently at a screen?

It could be asked whether designing a smooth customer experience for the mobile-savvy should also contain considerations to create elements that provide those “offline” with a pleasant social experience?

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

My occasionally sent email newsletter has all of the above, and there is of course also an RSS feed or my Mastodon/Fediverse profile.