Technology Design and User Intangibles

The economics – value propositions for ‘technologizing’ a product or service…in which favorable user intangibles are the coveted outcome, makes it all-the-more necessary to consider and merge (a.) design, and (b.) user conversion.

One early example of this emerged in 1981…in New York City with the onset of online (automated – technologized) banking services. NYC was the initial test market for providing remote (online, at home, internet) banking services.

These services were initially offered…(made available) and managed by four banks, i.e., Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Chemical Bank, and Manufacturers Hanover.

Because online banking was a wholly new (human) experience…each bank put various metrics in place in advance, to learn (a.) how, and (b.) which categories of customers may likely favorably respond to this early venture in automation, i.e., prospective user intangibles.

For the banks, of course, ‘prospective user intangibles’ ala insights, would be critical since a substantial requisite to customers (users) opting for – engaging in online banking, would presumably be ‘elevated personal trust’ (another intangible) relative to each banks automated (online) technology.

Interestingly, the initial (user) metrics revealed that…existing bank customers who engaged one of the online banking services were likely to do one or both of the following…

  • increase the volume of their online transactions, and
  • begin visiting and/or calling their bank more frequently, presumably to verify a previous online banking transaction had been executed.

Doing the above, initially increased banking costs and decreased overall profitability…for the participating banks. Plausible explanations, among others, were that…

  • technology (online banking) may-can be functionally limiting, thus, (inadvertently) influencing customers-users to seek (additional, supplemental) in-person assistance-guidance to perhaps, among other things, receive verification of an online transaction.
  • of course, as we have come to know also, as-when certain types of automation (innovation) are introduced and progress in their sophistication and functionality, most limitations, at least through users’ lens, tend to diminish over time.
  • too, humans have historically been inherently social creatures who receive-accrue emotional (intangible) value from interacting with other people. In fact, there is a body of research which suggests when such (human interaction) opportunities are removed via some type of automated – technological experience, that absence of personal connection can actually-undermine service performance.
    • For example, in one early study regarding usage of ATM’s (automated teller machines) customers began using ATM’s more and a (human) teller less. But, their overall level of satisfaction with their bank decreased. Go figure, right?

In a November 2010 article published in…‘Production and Operations Management’ titled Are Self-Service Customers Satisfied or Stuck?, authored by Ryan W. Buell, et al, describes how some technology – automation – artificial intelligence (robotic) advocates sense…

  • there are various limitations that may emerge when there is poor technology design.

That said, my rationale for writing this post…and using this example, is to demonstrate how far societies, and users in general, have progressed, i.e.,…

  • Service-related intangibles can convey emotion; most technologies, standing alone, seldom, if ever, can. For example, when one becomes anxious about whether a check has cleared in their bank, or why their headache persists, they are inclined to become, what’s referred to as advice seekers.
    • Even if the automation – technology has already provided the human with the correct answer and/or even sense-read the tone of one’s (an advice seeker’s) voice, or the expression on one’s face (i.e. facial recognition) people may interpret the reality that technology can ‘feel and sense’ to not be wholly comforting, even when a technology is deployed for that precise purpose.
    • For example, customers who called a large life insurance company to settle a death-related insurance claim, were, at one point, receiving a digitally voiced condolence message delivered through an ‘individual voice recognition’ (IVR) system.
  • An automated gesture of sympathy was less expensive!  Having an employee (human), unknown to the bereaved, personally expressing sympathy with some variation of the proverbial ‘I am sorry for your loss…you have our condolences’ just didn’t work.
  • So obviously, there was a cost tradeoff!  That is, the ‘automated, Siri-type expressions of sympathy’ were routinely interpreted as disingenuous, therefore, were not sustainable.
    • Would it not have been prudent to ‘focus group’ this in advance?
  • Most of us prefer having (other) people help us solve our technology problems! Obviously, the computational power-capacity of technology exceeds that of humans. Internet search engines have become our go-to – do all insofar as answering most every conceivable query one may have as well as tracking our searches to determines what we see – are shown online as an advertisement.
    • That’s machine learning – artificial intelligence.
  • Research clearly shows that large percentages of people globally have achieved comfort with engaging technology vs. people! On the other hand, when one looks for creative solutions to customer service problems, most prefer engaging humans for assistance.
    • In other words, when we find ourselves technologically stymied, or if we find ourselves in technologically ambiguous circumstances, we will very likely seek out a person for guidance and resolution.
  • Less work for employees often translates to more work for customers! For example, scanning and bagging our own groceries, variously circumvents conventional fraud-prevention and asset protection systems.
    • Doing so, actually-provides more work for the shopper compared to having a trained employee help with the task.
  • Numerous advances in technology, like this, objectively make a customer’s role easier and quicker! However, it’s important to note some types of automated solutions may influence customers to recognize a company is actually expending less effort on a shopper’s behalf, which, in turn, influences us to ask what, exactly are we paying for?
    • In fact, it’s likely, perhaps inevitable, that businesses will continue to seek new ways to use technology to improve the quality and efficiency of service. Some will do better than others. Based on what we know so far, successful innovations are likely to…
      • Automate transactional interactions that also facilitate the all-important human connection.
      • Create technologies that support employees’ efforts to create value for customers and not detract from and/or undermine human connections.
      • Enhance customer and employee engagement by making service intangibles more efficient, satisfying, and circumstances in which customers and employees can be visible to one another if-when desired = a win-win!

Services-actions that would likely be interpreted as annoying…when-if performed by a human, its logical to assume those same actions may also be annoying when performed by – through technological means. Recognizing this experiential can help companies avoid numerous (post technology development) challenges, or even transgressions.

A possible bottom line to all of this…suggests Buell, and I concur, the best uses of technology are likely to make…

  • customers and employees feel more, rather than less, valuable to their organization = intangible assets!
  • the service feels more, rather than less human = intangible assets!

Insights for this post, were, as noted above, gleaned from the fine work of Ryan W. Buell, UPS Foundation Associate Professor of Service Management in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School, where he is the faculty chair of the Achieving Breakthrough Service executive education program.

Michael D. Moberly February 24, 2018 ‘The Business Intangible Asset Blog’ since May 2006  ‘where one’s attention span, intangible assets, and solutions converge’!  St. Louis  [email protected]

Readers are invited to explore other posts, papers, and books I have published at

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