This morning I had to renew my Malaysian drivers license, and I had to do it in person. In typical government office style here, you have to take a number, and then wait for your number to be called. When we arrived, we discovered that the old push-button machine for taking a number had been replaced with a fancy new internet based QR code...

Yes, that's right, to reserve your place in the queue you now have to take out your own smartphone, and hope your mobile data, the remote server, and the entire internet between here and there all work. As if to prove my point, the mobile data of the poor lady in front of us failed. With the old system she would have pushed a button and been done. Now, she was fumbling to enter the wifi password so that she could finally get her number and sit down.

While she was fumbling with her phone, the man instructed me to pull out my smartphone and scan the QR code. So, I whipped out my cameraless dumb-phone. Yeah, dumb devices, smart people. ;-)

Clearly, the system's designers hadn't considered that not everyone has (or even wants) a working smartphone. What now?

Humanity came to the rescue. The man pulled out his own phone, scanned the QR code for us, and showed us the number. He even checked in with us when it was nearly our turn, to make sure we remembered the number and wouldn't miss our turn. Truly awesome.

I think there's a message in here for us engineers and designers...

Digitalization does NOT Make Things Better; Good Design Does

In this case, they took a perfectly working solution to a local problem (managing the waiting queue in an office), and made it needlessly complicated and brittle (it depends on millions of dollars of internet equipment to run). The lady's mobile data didn't work. I didn't have a smartphone. And, while we were there, their fancy Android TV based number display and announcement system crashed. The staff took to yelling out numbers while waiting for the system to reboot. Multiple failures in just the hour or two that we were there.

Even without the failures, the UX was worse than before. The phone fumbling slows down the process to get a number, and does NOTHING whatsoever to reduce waiting times or make the experience more pleasant. Scan the QR code, wait for the page to load, follow instructions, wait for the next page to load, etc...

This is just one of multiple such UX failures, where people switch to digital systems without thinking things through. An increasing number of restaurants have replaced large printed menus that you can easily skim, with a QR code based online menu. So now you're squinting at the menu shown on a tiny screen, and try to order through their clunky app. For some restaurants it's not even an app. It's a PDF of their old printed menu! When the internet fails or someone turns up without a smartphone, the system fails.

This also happens with online shopping. Michael McIntyre has a great video of the ridiculous experience of buying movie tickets online for your local cinema:

Our Goal is to Improve People's Quality of Life, NOT Complicate it

So, designers, engineers, product managers, and anyone involved in designing systems, or even deciding to build a new system. Please, take some time to think about what you're doing. Is what you're designing really going to make people's lives better? Or are you just making things more complicated (and brittle).

Are you solving a real problem? Or just digitalizing something for the sake of digitalizing it? Computers are great tools. But, just like a hammer, it's NOT the right tool for everything.

You're trying to make life better, NOT more complicated.