Blog | Monday, January 18, 2016

My Newark airport information technology (bad) experience

A couple of weeks ago I flew into Newark Liberty airport in transit to another destination. I had a few hours to spare, and after a very early flight from Boston, felt hungry and in need of a good breakfast. After looking around for options, I sat down in what appeared to be a reasonably upscale restaurant.

The first thing I noticed was that there were glistening iPads mounted on each table. Well, this appeared nice and modern! After activating the iPad, I had to scan my boarding pass, which after some difficulty, the iPad managed to register. I then began scrolling through the breakfast options and shortly afterwards a hostess came by and told me how the process works: I would order my food, swipe the credit card, and then the food would duly arrive. Seemed straightforward enough.

The only problem was that some of the options seemed rather complicated, with various additions and extras, and I had to keep scrolling back and forth to get to different screens. When I finally decided on an option, I attempted multiple times to swipe my credit card, but the reader appeared to be not working. The hostess tried to help, even using another credit card, but still no success. At that point, hungry and frustrated, I got up and told them I would find somewhere else to eat. Ideally, a good old-fashioned bagel shop. However, to my surprise, as I walked around the airport I noticed that almost every single eatery, be it a cafeteria or bar, had this iPad system of ordering.

When I finally settled on a small cafe in the food court, there seemed to be utter chaos in the ordering line. Customers were being told to use the iPad, get a receipt and then pay at another iPad. There was total confusion, and when I finally got my breakfast, I spoke to one of the cafe workers, expressing my frustration and asking what happened to normal traditional ordering of food. The young lady, who seemed sincere and hard-working, told me that this new system at Newark airport had been installed just 3 weeks previously. They were clearly having difficulty with it to say the least.

So it appears human contact while ordering food is going out of fashion, certainly at this airport anyway. This is a problem on a multitude of different levels:
• Customers find it more difficult to ask routine questions about their food or make special requests.
• Elderly people in particular have a hard time, as I could clearly see.
• The process takes longer, because the main rate-limiting step is not ordering or paying, but actually making the food.
• We are taking an essentially social human experience, dining, and attempting to computerize it (albeit at an airport).
• On a personal safety and hygiene front, it is a terrible idea—especially in an airport—to have hundreds of people who are about to eat touching the same screen

Undoubtedly this experiment at Newark airport has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, paid to IT folks and consultants. But has it really improved anything and is it what customers really want? Unfortunately, what many people from the IT world don't fully grasp is that while information technology is definitely the way of the future, not every human process is amenable or desirable to mechanization and technology.

Just as what we've seen at the frontlines of healthcare over the last decade, more IT isn't necessarily always the answer, and at a point actually reduces the user experience and customer satisfaction. Certain technically inclined people, who are happy spending their whole day sitting behind a screen, need to realize this.

Service is a human experience and people appreciate good service. Let's take supermarket checkouts as an example. As much as corporations want to promote self-service kiosks, most people simply have no interest in using them for their weekly shops.

I personally hope that Newark's experiment with this IT system fails. Not just because of the bad experience of customers, but because I also remembered my interaction with that sincere and hard-working cafeteria worker who told me all about this new system. No doubt she was just told by her superiors a few weeks ago, “Here is the new product; make it work,” perhaps not realizing another fundamental truth as she works so hard to get the new system up and running. People like her are just pawns in the process. Because if this works out the way some of her bosses intend, she and many others will almost certainly not be needed there anymore. That's what happens when the bottom line trumps good service and common sense.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.