Road and digital rage collide

Our cities are becoming more crowded making it is harder to get around.  As I teach my teenagers to drive, they have seen more road rage in a year than I saw in my first ten.  Last week my son watched in disbelief as two respectable-looking middle aged men used their cars to duel for first spot as their lanes merged.  The drivers then started to get out of the car at the next intersection before one sped through a red light to get away!

Our digital lives are also becoming more crowded as getting things done requires us to know ever more systems.  Every ticket we book, item we purchase, tax we pay and airline we fly requires us to interact online.  When each of these was a single transaction, it was manageable but now that everything interacts with everything else, we have created the equivalent of a congested road system.  When it all works as intended, the result can be magic but all too often we are left in frustrating digital gridlock.

We’ve all experienced being almost through an online transaction, like booking a ticket or buying clothes, when the website insists you log in with your account, which you may or may not have created in the past.  If you’re like 99% of the population, you won’t remember if you’ve created an account before and have to first try resetting a password only to then get a message that the account doesn’t exist or, worse, that “if there is an account under this email, you’ll receive instructions to reset the password” leaving you wondering as you wait.

I went through this full cycle recently while trying to reserve last minute seats at the football.  After working my way through entering the membership numbers of everyone in the family, resetting the password using two different email addresses and clicking through half a dozen seating options, I was within moments of entering my credit card when the transaction timed out and everything was reset!  I roared in frustration as I was taken back to the first screen to start again!

At their best, the freeways that connect different ends of our cities make moving around a cinch.  Like the freeways, if you miss the right online exit, go the wrong way, or are unlucky and get caught in a digital traffic jam of the endlessly spinning blue circle, it is horribly frustrating.

It isn’t often that people make rude gestures, swear or shout directly in someone’s face, even less so when they know the other person’s name.  Yet all of these things seem acceptable when we are safely separated by the sealed cabins of our cars.  Social norms are fuelled by empathy which requires social intimacy.  These norms not only stop rage they can also create great human experiences even in times of disruption.  Its why travellers who get stranded can club together and even form lifelong friendships out of a short hardship.

Similarly, our digital frustrations come out in messaging that sometimes makes road range seem tame.  Social media is full of otherwise normal people saying obnoxious things that they would never say to a person they knew, no matter how briefly.  I’ve seen organisations who have had to deal with social media centres that induce PTSD in those that have had to staff them.

We are social creatures and any form of separation in times of frustration is unhealthy.  Forcing people to live, work and transact in digital isolation is a recipe for rage.  When things do escalate to such a point that human customer service gets involved it is too late for anything other than a fight.

Despite years of experience, we set off on journeys on the assumption that nothing will go wrong.  When, almost inevitably, there is a traffic issue or road works, there is no contingency and the situation is immediately stressful.  When another driver pushes-in or commits any one of a dozen other minor acts the stress easily converts to rage.  That’s why almost every programme to reduce road rage starts with adding a little contingency into every trip.

Similarly, organisations design their digital solutions on the assumption that everything will go right, every user will know their account and every system will always be online.  When, inevitably, something goes wrong there is no contingency and, increasingly, there is no alternative route.

Part of the answer is to add alternatives into the design of every process.  There must always be another way to do each task including reverting to manual steps if that’s what makes sense.  So-called “edge cases” should be considered including large groups, families, disabled and a myriad of other alternatives.  We need to get used to the abnormal being normal!

Of course, even with better planning, at some point the whole global digital infrastructure will go offline through a solar flare or some other catastrophe.  By that time the road system will be just as digitised as ever other part of our lives are becoming.  When that happens, it is inevitable that road and digital rage will collide!

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