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When digital ecosystems fail
If you’ve read any of my blogs, you will know that I like technology. Properly designed and deployed, IT has the potential to significantly reduce the cost and dramatically improve the experience of investing. But you can have too much of a good thing as I discovered on a recent trip to London.

Ironically, if you read my previous blog, I was in town for the WMA conference the following day. Our Marketing team had booked us into a stylish new hotel close to the conference and we arrived in the early evening looking forward to a quick change before heading out for a meal. Walking into the hotel, the signs were promising; stylish sofas, glass tables, chrome bar stools and lots of neon. But intriguingly, no Reception desk. Walking a little bit deeper into the hotel, the reason became clear in the form of three big round tables sprouting a series of gigantic Apple monitors all showing the same friendly welcome screen inviting us to check-in.

The check-in screen couldn’t have been simpler – just type in your name, email or booking reference. I tried the first two but the computer couldn’t find me. The speed with which four smart hotel staff descended on me to help made me think I was not the first person to have this problem. I explained that my Marketing colleague had booked for several of us and by now she had joined us with details of the reservation – which incidentally included all our names and email addresses. Nevertheless, the friendly hotel staff quickly took over and completed the check-in procedure for all of us handing each of us a plain electronic key card plus a cardboard wallet with our room details. No harm done.

So I headed to the lifts to find the second floor. If you do business in London, you will know that lifts are not as simple as they used to be with each successive skyscraper apparently intent on finding new ways to reinvent what  once viewed as such a trivial task it was fit only for the lowest echelons of society. This one was not too bad on first inspection. There was a reassuringly familiar sequence of numbers to press and they were actually inside the lift. I pressed 2 and nothing happened. But these days I am alive to such hazards and knew I must have to touch the panel with my room key. I did this and two American guests swiftly followed my lead then selected their floor too. What subsequently became apparent was that there was quite a precise location on the panel where you had to present your card, in fact it was marked out at a jaunty angle with a dotted line. Evidently I had missed it because the lift sailed past the second floor stopping at every other floor on its way to the top and then back down again.

So, 7 stops later, I stepped out of the lift on the second floor and made my way to the room. The door to my room had a handle and a keyhole but no slot in which to insert the keycard. I presented the card to the handle and surrounding area at various angles hoping for some magic but to no avail. Then I noticed a little white plastic rectangle with a red light on it to one side of the doorframe – this must be the keycard panel. Once again I presented the card at every angle and direction I could think of but the light stayed stubbornly red and the handle wouldn’t budge. Exasperated, I returned to the lift and headed down to the lobby.

By this time I recognised the staff in their mauve uniforms so was able to walk up to them and explain my predicament. They were most apologetic, humoured my apparent technophobia and escorted me back to the lifts to show me how it was done. I watched expectantly as my hotel hostess confidently presented the card to the red light but it stayed red. She too tried several different angles of attack but with the same result until eventually she too gave up, told me it was very rare but occasionally the key coding fails.

We went back to the lobby and the friendly check-in screens where my hostess logged into some secure admin screen to reformat the electronic key. It was at this point that it became clear that the problem was not the key but the room number that had been written (by hand) on the cardboard wallet. What looked like a 2 was actually a rather stylised 1 with an extravagant flick at the top and the base. So I retraced my steps and, 15 minutes after arriving at the hotel, I walked through the door into my small but hi-tech hotel room – think Blade Runner.

Once through the door a whole new series of challenges confronted me. A large TV screen covering the wall at the foot of the bed was filled with a friendly personalised greeting; “Welcome Rebecca” – she works in our Marketing team. I had a chuckle and decided to flick on the news headlines quickly before I changed to go out. So I hunted around for the remote control. It wasn’t a big room but there were several drawers and cupboards to check before I concluded that there was no remote. That’s when I noticed the iPad which I soon realised was meant to be my interface to all electrical devices in my room. After a few swipes, I got the hang of it and managed to find BBC News as well as changing the ambient lighting in my room to cool, closing the blinds, setting an alarm for 7 the next morning and even working out how to view my emails on the TV. Gratuitous maybe but fun nonetheless.

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough with a nice meal and few drinks before retiring to bed early ready for the conference the next day. I shut down the TV, turned off all the lights and climbed into bed but there was still an annoying glow from next to the bed. My personal iPad had many great features but going dark wasn’t one of them and it insisted on displaying its friendly splash screen at full brightness. So I put it face down on the shelf.

Next morning I woke slowly and checked my watch – it lights up when I press the bezel. The time was 7:30 and I’d overslept by half an hour. I reached for the iPad and turned it over to see what had happened and, you’ve guessed it, the screen was dead and it had run out of charge. So now it was time to hop out of bed and dash to the bathroom to make up some time. But first I needed some light, and guess where that was controlled from? So I found myself searching around the bed with my tiny watch face “torch” to locate a light switch. Mercifully the hotel designers had at least had the foresight to fit these emergency back-up devices but, in the interests of style, they’d decided to make them matt black with slate grey writing and I spent the next few minutes cycling through the many lighting modes before I had enough illumination to shave by.

You’ll be relieved to hear I did make it to the venue on time and my tales of technology woe were quickly overshadowed by the US election result but it has made me reflect on what we do. You can have the coolest technology on the planet but, if you apply it to the wrong problem and ask consumers to re-learn something they are quite comfortable with, you run the very real risk of alienating your audience.

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