Filed Under: Payments, Retail and Transit

The user experience will make, or break, mobile payments

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Being a keen consumer of baked pastry goods, and having a firm desire to see the pieces of plastic & cardboard in my wallet transferred to my phone, you can understand my excitement when the award-winning Greggs Rewards app was released early in 2014. The app combines the processes of payment, loyalty, and rewards into a single interaction at the point of sale, with a prepaid payment account which can be automatically topped up via credit card or PayPal. In eager anticipation of a tasty lunchtime treat, I therefore ventured out of the office and off to the town centre.

My first expedition ended in disappointment. In order to perform a transaction the customer opens the app, presses the ‘spend now’ button, and receives a dynamically generated token (an eight digit number) which is to be presented to the POS in the form of a QR code. But… in order to receive the token, I had to have a network connection. Now, whilst there is a very good network connection all the way up to the front door of the store, once through the doors my phone decided to connect to “The Cloud”.  For some reason, my phone has an on-off relationship with “The Cloud” and, it appears, its relationship with this particular hotspot appears to be more ‘off’ than ‘on’.  No matter, I can turn WiFi off. But what’s this? It appears that my mobile network didn’t share my longing for a sausage roll and decided to only let the GPRS signal through the door. It turns out that GPRS, whilst a revelation 15 years ago, does not appear to offer a particularly suitable channel for today’s mobile apps. Unable to obtain a token, I resorted to my plastic card.

Armed with this knowledge, I anticipated a successful second visit. This time, not only did I press the button to obtain the token before I got anywhere near the store, but I also took a screenshot of the QR code just in case. Ready to pay, and having got past the inevitable learning curve for the checkout operator who hadn’t been shown what to do with this new scheme, I was ready to finally scan my code – except that this store didn’t have any scanners at that time. So instead, I had to enter the 8 digit number on the keypad of the card reader. Happily, once the POS had my token, everything else went smoothly. I had redeemed an offer for a free item, paid for the outstanding items, and had a coffee loyalty purchase recorded all in a single interaction.

“But hang on,” I remember thinking, “they already accept contactless cards.  And I have an NFC phone which can talk to their readers. Wouldn’t it be great if the app could do NFC?”

Well, sixteen months later, and Greggs Rewards has now quietly added support for contactless in its Android app. Full of even more excitement than last February (well, I have been waiting for two years to pay for something by NFC) I headed out.

Having informed the operator that I would be paying with my phone, I was interested to note that she enabled the terminal for ‘card’ payment and not ‘rewards’ payment. Having seen that the app requires at least Android 4.4, and so concluding that it must be using Host Card Emulation (HCE), I was hopeful that this meant that it was seamlessly integrated into the ‘normal’ payment process.

Alas, the terminal was actually expecting a payment card and so the transaction failed. The operator told me that, when I had waved my phone at her, she had automatically assumed it was a contactless payment (which, as an aside, is actually good news for this month’s Apple Pay launch.)  It turns out that trying to integrate everything into a more seamless experience means impacting the existing card payment certifications, so for now they’re stuck with having to tell the POS what type of payment it should be expecting in advance.

Using the rewards app, even over contactless, still requires the operator to press the a special “rewards” button on the POS. This she did, and the contactless reader was ready to read my phone, the barcode reader was ready to scan my QR, and the terminal was ready for me to type in the number.

Unfortunately, this was the moment my phone decided it no longer wanted to play. With me having accidentally switched apps, on re-opening the Greggs app it decided it needed to connect back ‘home’ again. Because I hadn’t disabled WiFi, I was at the mercy of my phone’s long-term “It’s Complicated” relationship with The Cloud and so unable to provide the token. After disabling the WiFi, restarting the app (which for some reason was complaining that the 4G connection my phone now had was ‘too slow’), inwardly cringing at the complaints from the lengthening queue behind, and ignoring my colleague’s offer to just hand over some cash to get us out of there, I finally performed my first real world NFC transaction and was the proud owner of a free doughnut.

So what can we take away from all this?  Firstly, the mobile app must not rely on hardware or OS services that are not absolutely critical. Reliance on network connections is understandable for e-commerce, or for refreshing the app content, but for a POS transaction the app must be able to work without one – even if it is using dynamic tokens. The card schemes have already worked this out and catered for it in their HCE specifications.

Secondly, the payment experience must be seamless. It is frustrating to be a customer trying to explain a company’s mobile offering to the checkout operator, especially when the payment terminals are adorned with collateral advertising that very scheme. “Why,” I ask wearing the hat of a less well-informed member of the public, “can the till not work out for itself what payment method is being presented to it?  I don’t know about payment certifications and the resulting workarounds; I only care that the process is more complicated than it seems it should be.”

Only those of us with an unnatural interest in mobile payments (or a hearty appetite for pasties) will put up with a poor user experience more than once.  Normal people will give up and uninstall the app if it doesn’t work flawlessly; the people waiting in the resulting queue – such as the woman behind me who observed that “this is ridiculous” are unlikely to try it even that once.

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