smh (shaking my head) – an opportunity

I just got back from vacation, which means that I have had the opportunity to be in a lot of places where newbies (tourists – often myself or my family) encounter a lot of veterans (locals, workers, frequent customers). The product of this combination is often a newbie doing something inappropriate for the setting, followed by a veteran shaking their head.

As an example, we were waiting to check our baggage at the airport and it was one of those lines where there are 4 agents at 4 counters checking bags.  When one agent finishes with a passenger, they yells or gesticulates for the next person in line. When an agent had to yell or a bunch of times to get someone’s attention, there was often a shaking of the head, either from the agent or from the other, more seasoned customers.

This wasn’t the only time – when tourists pause while trying to figure something out and block the usual traffic, when people can’t figure out how to open the door on the subway, or when a visitor pays by handing over a collection of coins that adds up to the wrong amount – all of these events are prime head shaking moments.

It’s easy to identify with either side, with outrage. Stupid tourists can’t figure anything out! Or: Give them a break, they’ve never been here before!

What if you don’t have to pick a side, but instead could see the shaking of the head as an opportunity? An opportunity to see that there is a flaw in the system?

A shaking of the head means that the system or environment is designed in a way that doesn’t support easy use. It means that what has become second nature after repeated exposure is confusing the first time. Sure, people can get used to nearly anything eventually, but the best design can be understood quickly by even the uninitiated – what is it about the current situation that could be made easier?

Look at the baggage checking area of any airport. Closed counters are interspersed with open counters. There are workers who are creating visual (hand waving) and audible (“next!”) cues for the next person in line, but there are also a lot of workers who are doing paperwork or walking around and there’s lots of noise, cluttering both those communication channels. People have to watch lots of potential targets to know what to do next. Customers who have completed the check-in process have just been handed several items (identification, tickets, baggage claim tickets) that are both unwieldy and precious, resulting in post-completion loitering as they put things away. The place is a head shaking factory.

Head shaking is also an opportunity to examine the mind set, the service attitude of the workers. Is the first instinct to judge and blame the customers? Or to try to help them? Does the worker see it as their duty to help or inform the confused customer, or is the customer an impediment to their work?

Where are the smh moments in your own company? In your own life?

We can do more than decide which side we agree with and apply our outrage respectively. We can use an “smh” as a signal that there is an opportunity to make something better.

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