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Contactless bank cards have been around for a while, but I’ve never wanted one – until last weekend.

My contactless IWOOT moment happened when my wife tapped her way through the gates at our local rail station, paying for a rail journey into town using her debit card alone.

A bell went off in the centre of my reptile brain. A latent need awoke in me. I was immediately lost in service reverie and I now covet her contactless debit card. I too want the power of Oyster-less travel.

I don’t have a contactless card because – well, until now – it just seemed a bit ‘meh’. A little bit 'tap and pay' whatevz. Of course I knew I’d be getting one at some stage - probably as a result of losing my wallet. But, to date, it hasn’t been compelling enough for me to seek it out.

I think this tells us quite a lot about the adoption of new types of service, especially around payment.

The reason I found myself suddenly aspiring to ‘contactless’ is simple: payment’s not broken enough, but there are many, many experiences that are.

Oyster cards run out of credit – usually when you’re in a massive hurry. It’s usually the busiest day of the year and the experience is horrible. It’s humiliating. Publicly humiliating. You plough in at great speed to tap your wallet on the gate as usual, but the gates don’t open and you smash into them like a fool, a big red error message tells you (and everyone else) to, “Seek assistance”.

That’s bad, but it gets worse.

Zombie-herd momentum means a crowd of commuters has been funneled in behind you, unable to believe that some selfish loser has allowed the credit to run out on their card. You must now fight your way clear of a fire-hose of spiky, psycho commuters – apologising repeatedly – and struggle outside to the ticket machines to top up. Obviously, there are queues for the ticket machine. Long queues. Queues of idiots moving in slow motion who seem never to have used the ticket machine, or any machine, ever before. Remember you were probably asleep less than an hour ago – this is enough to completely ruin your day. For ever.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I don’t do auto-top-up, that’s an excellent question but here’s the thing: I can’t set this up because ‘Verified by VISA’ doesn’t work. I know I am not alone on this.)

So yeah – that’s a problem space worth solving for. A real pain-point, with added humiliation.

Compared to the hellscape I just sketched out for you, ‘tapping and paying’ for low-value items in a shop seems utterly trivial. There’s no public shame involved for one thing. But quite honestly, I find cash and normal debit cards perfectly acceptable thank you.

This is why I think contactless payment on London Transport will be the gateway drug to full-on contactless payment.

I know, the gateway drug metaphor is a bit alarming but it’s a good way to think about how one might go about designing entirely new behaviours that unlock scale and new business models. It’s particularly relevant with payment, which is obviously the holy grail of next-generation mobile and wearable context-driven experiences. In order to get them hopelessly addicted to the ‘hard stuff’ (payment), you first need to entice them into experimenting, and then into regular ‘using’ - trying out softer versions of payment, the equivalent of cigarettes, or 'legal highs'.

Insensitive metaphors aside, payment in itself is simply not broken enough to be attractive straight out of the gates. In fact, payment is practically the only bit of ‘shopping’ that isn’t broken: queuing is broken, loyalty is broken, receipts are broken, transport is often broken, customer service is definitely broken… the payment bit of payment where you get cash or cards out of your pocket and exchange it/them for goods just isn’t quite there on the ‘broken’ front yet.

You can see this in the dismal adoption rates for Google Wallet and other mobile payment systems, such as the O2 wallet in the UK or the Isis Wallet in the US (now called ‘SoftCard’). Each of these initiatives failed to get any traction in the market because there literally isn’t yet a market for them. Very tiny numbers of early-adopter geeks don’t count. They are solutions in search of a real customer problem. Of course, this may change with Apple Pay but don't hold your breath.

On the other hand, there are many successful ‘gateway-drug’ like services in the payment space that are bringing scale audiences into mobile payments in a more roundabout way, to deliver actual value in specific new contexts: Starbucks, the Wahaca app, Uber and Hailo, Pingit, JustEat and HungryHouse, Dice and YPlan. The door to mainstream mobile payment adoption doesn’t necessarily have the word ‘payment’ written on it.

Tim Malbon

Tim Malbon

Tim founded influential digital product design company Made by Many in 2007. He’s a leading voice in the emerging practice area of product design and innovation, customer experience and business strategy. He’s the Webby Awards UK Ambassador and a member of the IADAS, and was recently named by Creative Review as one of the 50 Creative Leaders "driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large."


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