Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Only Country in the World

Software systems that interact with people speak volumes about the people who designed them. In particular, software systems used by travelers often send a clear message: “This is the only country in the world. If you are an outsider, you are not welcome.”

Let’s start with the US. If you want to buy gas at the pump – as almost anyone who travels by car needs to do occasionally – and you don’t have a US zip code, you are out of luck. The gas pumps will require a five digit zip code that matches your home zip code, which, of course, you don’t have. US software systems for purchasing gas are very clear: If you don’t live in the US, you can’t buy gas here.

Not that it’s easy for me to buy gas in Europe, because there I need a chip-and-pin card. But credit card companies in the US have settled on chip-and-signature cards, effectively preventing me from purchasing gas at a pump in Europe. My European friends have no sympathy, since they can’t purchase gas in the US either.

Of course, the problems with my chip-and-signature card do not lie in the gas pump software, but in the choice made by US credit card issuers to use signature as the authentication method. We all know that signature authentication is a joke which leads to a far less secure credit card, but in addition, it prevents me from using the pin authentication systems that are common outside the US. My credit card company has issued me a chip-and-signature card that they claim is a “travel card” – which would be true if the US were the only country in the world. But should I happen to travel to another country, not only are gas pumps off limits to my chip-and-signature card, but I can’t purchase train or bus tickets – or anything sold at a kiosk.

There are other countries where software systems used by travelers are limited to residents. For example, in the Netherlands, train tickets are typically purchased through a bank account which – you guessed it – must be at a Netherlands bank. Earlier this year, I was unable to purchase NS train tickets online with a credit card; I had to get a colleague in the Netherlands to purchase online tickets and email them to me. I didn't want to chance getting tickets once I arrived, since I understand there are very few NS ticket kiosks usable by outsiders.

In the UK, there are very nice train discount schemes; for example, two people traveling together can get serious discounts. The catch is that they must first purchase a discount card with pictures of the two travelers, which can easily be obtained online, but must be mailed to a UK address. True, it is possible to obtain a discount card at a train station, but not at Heathrow – and where do you suppose most travelers arrive? Unlucky travelers without a UK address must pay full price for (expensive) Heathrow Express tickets, and then stand in line at Paddington with the proper paper applications and photographs to get a discount card.

Attention UK software designers: did it occur to you that some people don’t have a UK address? How hard would it be to charge a bit more for shipping to addresses outside the UK?

You would not think that Sweden would belong to the club of countries with software systems designed as if it were the only country in the world. But when we arrived at Arlanda airport on a Friday night and tried to buy the special weekend two-for-one ticket on the Arlanda Express, it was not on the kiosk menu. (Yep, I was using a chip-and-pin card – my debit card!). I searched and searched and finally saw the message stuck to the kiosk below the screen: A recent change had been made: now the special discount ticket could only be purchased through the Arlanda Express app or online, not at the kiosk.

Reading between the lines, this is clearly an attempt to limit the best Arlanda Express ticket pricing to Swedish residents. "Not so!" the software designers probably argued. "Anyone can load the app and buy a ticket." How am I supposed to load an app, validate my payment method, and buy a ticket before the train leaves – all without internet access? I complained to the train conductor, who said he thought the scheme was terrible – he has listened to complaints from countless deeply annoyed visitors to Sweden – would I please complain directly to customer service? As I was composing my complaint email on the train, I had to listen to messages about how hard Arlanda Express was working to make our experience wonderful. Yes, but only if you happen to live in Sweden.

We took a taxi to our Stockholm hotel from the train station and tried to pay the driver in cash, only to learn that our Swedish money was out of date and no longer legal tender. So I asked at the hotel desk how to change the old notes into new ones. The person at reception was very helpful – she told me that I could mail the cash in with an on-line form and the money would be deposited in my bank account, even if it were a “foreign” account. I was skeptical. And sure enough, when we looked at the form (which was in Swedish) we found that only bank accounts with IBAN numbers would work. Those of us from countries without IBAN numbers are apparently too foreign to merit a convenient way to get our money back, even though we are the most likely people to have the old currency.

Clearly there are far too many software systems in the travel industry that are built as if the local country were the only country in the world. This is a plea to all the software teams designing systems that might be used by travelers from another country – or might be used by your customers when they travel to another country – have you built your system as if your country were the only country in the world? Why not try a few use cases for travelers from / and to / other countries? We exist, you know, and we’re getting tired of arrogance embedded in software.