Photo of external seam in eczema nightwear
Photo of seam taken by Ian
On Seamlessness
Ian Smith on Wed Sep 18, 2019

“It’s going to be completely seamless!”

How many times have you heard that? I’ve worked in technology for almost 30 years, and the answer for me is “Many times”. In fact I’ve been promised seamlessness far more often than I’ve seen it delivered. The word is pervasive and used incredibly broadly. From the effortless integration of your software into my technology stack to the promised smooth journey when I buy products and services from you, it is everywhere.

As an industry, we’re obsessed with diminishing friction and removing (sometimes via bad plastering jobs) the gaps between things. In the Sunday Times “Tech Track 100” listing of Britain’s 100 fastest-growing private technology companies, Richard Kauffer of investment bank N+1 Singer writes:

“Seamless” is the buzzword among switched-on companies for the kind of experience their customers want, and this focus on customer experience […] is strongly reflected in this year’s Tech Track 100 league table.

I’m very much in favour of a focus on customer needs, but is a seamless experience always right for customers?

Seams can be good

I bank with Monzo, which has gone to some lengths to make banking into a seamless experience. It indeed compares well with other banks that I have used. However, Monzo is moving forward with deliberately creating some very interesting delays in the transactions of its customers.

Monzo has further plans in this area, but their first implementation is a gambling block. Customers who wish to hang on to their hard-earned cash can activate this on their account. Once in place, they cannot use their Monzo card to spend money with gambling companies. Customers can remove the block, but the removal process incorporates a 24-hour delay. This intentional bit of friction is enough to get many people over a critical moment of temptation when they would otherwise have spent the money.

Tom Blomfield, Monzo’s CEO, recently told a story to Wired Magazine that illustrates this. He related how the bank had heard from a customer who was using the gambling block on her account. She had triggered the removal of the block at 2 am, but got in touch the next day to ask them not to turn it off after all. The “seam” that Monzo had introduced into her experience of a gambling application helped her to achieve her broader objective of not gambling.

Where they exist, seamless user experiences allow us to flow smoothly through a process and achieve a goal, such as buying something. The example above demonstrates how an interruption in this smooth flow can be beneficial.

Seams can help consumers, but they can also work in favour of those retailers and consumer-focused companies that introduce them, even at the cost of a sale here and there. The trade-off of sacrificing a purchase today to retain the lifetime value of a relationship with a customer might be worth making. I’m sure that responsible gambling companies would agree that giving people the tools to control their gambling habits is a positive thing to do. They might prefer, however, to provide the means themselves, as might any retailer.

Seamless Experiments on Humans?

I’ll be thinking about all this some more in Manchester next Tuesday evening at How to Conduct Experiments on Human Beings. I’m going to be working with Squad 2 on the question “Is Seamless Evil?", brainstorming a whole bunch of innovative ideas around the topic. There will also be two other squads, working on different questions, so there’s something for everyone.

Why don’t you join me, and see if we can make the world better by slowing a few things down?

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