Every so often a customer or user encounters a process, or experiences an interaction, that makes them feel all 1990s.
It makes them feel like the whole world has moved on, leaving only them, stuck, trying to find a black biro, or trying to communicate with a customer services department.
On the Econsultancy blog, there's been much talk of digital transformation. One of the most startling changes, cross-sector, is the almost complete agreement that web operations must be completely customer focused, as should the rest of business be.
So when, at Econsultancy, we receive the occasional notice of a disputed payment from a Barclaycard or AmEx customer (as do most online businesses), asking me to fax or post back information, I rant and tramp around the office, shouting 'can't we just ****** email it?!'
Why do we have to do this? Is this an indicator of a false dawn; an indicator of how far we have to go until the customer is the number one priority?
Ok, this is going to be a boring article about faxes, but at the heart of it is the 21st Century assertion that 'you must be where your customers are'.
Firstly, I know AmEx's 'customer' in this instance is the user disputing a payment, and AmEx is simply trying to protect their information.
I know there are reasons why fax and post are the two methods of communication that are perceived as the safest.
Admittedly, faxes also send data cheaper than scanning many gigabytes of imagery and emailing the resulting files.
But I think all these points are red herrings.
I have been reading a few opinions on faxes on this Slashdot thread. Yes, that's how I spend my afternoons.
I've quoted some points of view below. You may or may not have the will to read these messages, and if not, skip down to the next section on UX, to see what my actual point is in this brief post.
'Most fax machine inboxes nowadays go to email, in my experience.'
'The old fax machine in the corner where everyone's faxes go and anyone can look through them isn't terribly secure either.'
'Quite honestly, the reason the fax refuses to die is because people, once they adopt a method, tend not to change. It's the inertia of least effort, aka laziness, aka efficiency of thought.'
'I recently did some work for an organisation that wouldn't accept the PDF, but would if I printed off a copy and posted it to them. It seems crazy that printing it on my printer makes it legally binding, but printing it on theirs doesn't, and a court would agree.'
'So, what does email offer that fax does not? Is it more reliable? No, not really. Email has inherently unreliable delivery, particularly with spam and malware filters which silently delete suspect emails. Is email more secure? Absolutely not. Email is unencrypted during transmission unless the message itself is encrypted. Does email guarantee sender identity better than fax? Quite the opposite. It's often illegal to obfuscate or alter your sending fax number due to junk fax laws, while spoofing email is trivial.
Finally, since fax is established in the business world, it has become something you will often need not because you yourself haven't adopted a better technology, but because your business peers and customers haven't adopted a better technology. Even where it's not wanted, it's a mandatory legacy system to deal with people who must use fax for whatever reason.'
'Doctors pretty much are obligated to use fax or they will almost certainly end up violating HIPAA.'
Back to UX
In our office, we don't have a spare phone line or a fax; we use a VoIP phone system, and we have to use eFax. I've forgotten my login to eFax, and the system doesn't recognise my email.
When I do try to send, I get an error report about 15 minutes later, so I can never dare to believe I've succeeded.
If I didn't already eat porridge with water every day for breakfast, perhaps I'd enjoy these brief moments of self-flaggelation.
If I send documentation by post, I have to wait for a few extra days.
I believe that if banks really care about UX, they need to enable customers on both sides of a transaction to send communication via a web portal. If this is possible for online banking, it can be possible for submitting evidence for disputed claims etc.
This web portal should be a usable site that also provides information about services and disputes etc etc.
If this kind of service existed, one could almost negate the postal element of paperwork. Even opening an account could be done remotely, after all, I can't recall sending originals through the post.
This method would be more successful for the bank; they could contact users electronically or by phone to say there is a pending dispute on a portal, giving us a unique number (even by post) to access this. My ideas about this might be all mixed up, but I'm pretty sure the current state of affairs is down to a resistance to change, even in the face of customer disenfranchisement.
Perhaps we are in a no-man's land waiting for biometrics. The wait is a painful one.