Touchpoint Conflict

I tried Zipcar for the first time this weekend and took the opportunity to examine the customer journey. It’s a great service in most respects, but I noticed a few quirks when I went to refuel the car. Hidden inside the fuel door was a blue sticker with instructions from Flexcar, a now-defunct rival car sharing service. Zipcar acquired them a few years ago and the instructions are apparently an artifact of Flexcar’s sticker-happy ways. The steps are pretty basic and while they don’t conflict with the Zipcar process they don’t inform it very well either.

Pumping gas isn’t supposed to be rocket science but the interaction design for payment seemed a little cryptic. When I inserted the Zipcar fuel card at the pump the interface simply displayed the word “DRIVER” in the top left corner. After a couple cycles in which the process timed out without activating the pump I realized that it wanted me to identify myself as a Zipcar member. The problem is that Zipcar assigns members both a “user name” and a “Zipcard number” but for some reason the interface didn’t ask for either. If the readout had used the correct terminology it would have been clear that they were asking for input, but I didn’t immediately recognize the word “DRIVER” as a prompt. Once I cracked the code the readout changed to display the word “MILEAGE.” By now I was getting the hang of the interface’s brusque interrogative style. Ideally you’re supposed to note the mileage before fueling. But it’s a six digit number and it turns out there’s actually a fair bit of rocket science before being asked to input the number. I’ve always heard that you’re not supposed to re-enter a vehicle during fueling because it increases the risk of static electricity sparks, but there wasn’t any choice so I ducked back inside only to find that the odometer on the Civic hybrid was digital and thus unreadable when the ignition was turned off. So I got back out, replaced the fuel nozzle, closed the gas cap and then restarted the vehicle. Noted the number, looked around for something to write on and, failing to find anything, scrawled the number on the palm of my hand.

Zipcar’s online gas demo makes it clear that they’re aware of the differences in terminology but in their video the fuel pump readout isn’t nearly so cryptic. Instead of “DRIVER” it says “Please enter your driver ID number then press enter,” as it should. It goes on to explain that “driver ID number” actually means “Zipcard number”. The video also shows the fuel pump asking for mileage first, a request that’s much easier to interpret. Both the phrasing and the order make a big difference, and raise the possibility that the individual gas station software at the pump might be to blame — I’ll go to a different gas station next time to investigate. Of course, that’s little consolation for beleaguered Zipcar members. If you can’t change the terminology in the interface, then at least adopt that terminology throughout the process. It’d be as simple as printing the words “driver ID” above the number on the Zipcard.

This facet of the journey illustrates the nexus of several different disciplines within a service encounter. Graphic design covers the Zipcar co-pilot manual, the renegade instruction sticker and the fuel card itself (which had helpful instructions printed on it). Interaction design informs the fuel pump interface, the call center helpline and the welcome e-mail that gave me an initial overview of the fueling process. You might even consider the potential for information architecture to establish a standardized vocabulary across touchpoints.

I can’t help thinking that the fueling process could be improved. Maybe attach a dry-erase marker or grease pencil to the sun visor and provide a spot on the back of the fuel card to note the mileage. Or maybe eliminate that step in the process altogether. I’m guessing that the driver id and mileage are for fraud prevention, but I can’t imagine how it works in cities like Portland where you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. Next time it’ll be easy but it’s tough to get over that initial bewilderment.

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