crawling over broken glass

It seems like the easiest tasks that we humans have been doing, since well before we ever began tapping feverishly on our computers, are the exact tasks that some product developers have made even harder for us.

Case in point: Scheduling an appointment.

Ask any product team, if there is a list of super-non-sexy things for them to develop, that may be #5 on the list.

We begin at the end.

Let’s start there for a minute. The end of the human’s story…. their measure of success. Have we understood what success means here? To be clear, making the appointment is not success. It is a necessary, and sometimes frustrating, step on the way to our success.

In many of our experiences, we have a much bigger outcome than, did I set the appointment successfully for the dentist on Friday at 11:00 am? It’s more about what that task does to help us know we’ll:
* have clean teeth without major issues (cavities, gum disease, etc), or
* our smiles will be bright and beautiful, or
* perhaps closer to the truth, we’ll be more attractive to others because our smiles are so nice.

Clayton Christenson’s famous milkshake study showed us this beautifully as did this work done to uncover the true reason people were buying (or, not buying) condos.

To get to what we really really want, there is usually a complicated series of steps (in techno-speak, “algorithms”) we have to take to realize that desired outcome. This is where the inefficiencies, aggravations, and difficulties lie. They add up in time, high effort — and both of those lower our motivation to continue. [Occasionally, our motivation is so high, we’re willing to deal with the pain of those steps. A good friend of mine used to say “we’ll crawl over broken glass” if we want that outcome bad enough. ]

Remember the last time you decided it was time to lead a healthier more active lifestyle? How do you know what is “healthier” or “more active”? There are lots of steps you need to see happen on the way to just defining it, and then to practicing it. The first one might be — Get a baseline knowledge of your current health.
So, you need to :
* find a doctor
* pay for a doctor
* identify other resources to help you identify “healthy” for you.
And, on and on it goes.

In every one of THOSE steps, are a series of more steps. Is it any wonder people struggle?

But wait!
Technology to the rescue.
It now automates, or tries to help us with, with all these little tasks. It is supposed to minimize the high effort and time-sucking experiences that we endure on our journey to “healthier” or “more active”.
So why do we still get stuck?

Oversight. Plain and simple. These ‘workflow’ problems are, in general, boring to [re]create, and solve for. It takes energy, foresight, and customer-care to look at the seemingly boring workflow and make it work — reliably, over and over for millions of customers.

These workflow tasks all too familiar to the people that build them and it’s not as exciting to solve those problems as it is to figure out ways to build new technologies and use those for other problems. I empathize. My brain likes the innovative, the new, the non-routine, too.

But then the day comes when one of those builders is a customer.
Then, they encounter the by-product of a team who didn’t focus on that level of detail, didn’t maintain that one feature’s performance, and what happened? They get frustrated, even angry. They have become a consumer of someone else’s online tool to help them avoid those boring, tiresome tasks. And it’s not working.
And they wonder, how did they not care to make this work!!?

The trigger

Think of the last time you made an appointment for a doctor/specialist. What were the triggers or context for that? Were they emotional at all?

By the time most people are in online appointment setting mode, there are a host of triggers that have set this journey in motion. By ignoring, or not understanding the weight of those, and how they are inextricably linked to the human’s bigger desired outcome, teams set up waterfall of things they’ll have to unravel later; call center or customer support starts sending tickets, engineering is asking for prioritization, and it all circles right back to product. Later, lagging indicators like retention, churn and engagement start blinking red.

Let’s talk hair

Setting a hair appointment. A boring, time-sucking, necessary task in the journey toward realizing some desired outcome; looking good, beautiful, or just well-groomed for (________).

Here is an appointment scheduling feature for a national salon, The Dry bar. Pretty standard stuff. We see all the main components of setting an appointment; who it’s for, date, time, location, etc.

book an appointment image
Booking an appoint on The Dry Bar. Seems intuitive, right?
“Find Open Appointment near you” – not activated.

Once completed, a moment of frustration starts. We are now trained to see an “activated” button somewhere. A button that has turned a new color to show us we can click on it and move forward. But the big grey button that say “Find Open Appointments Near You” is still grey.

In fact, it stays Unactivated throughout this interaction. I take cues from the highlighted areas, like the yellow search icon, and start filling out my zip. I’m already in a state of confusion because I’m in a new section labeled “OR”, which means I’m worried about how the system will take my inputs. Am I confusing it now?

No matter what I do, or what I input, I receive no feedback about my progress.

I already know the painstaking, difficult and long process of calling for an appointment. I’m starting to put my shoes on for my walk across broken glass.


I waited three years before I returned to this business. And it was because of a former, much deeper sea of broken glass experience that I avoided returning. In that time, I thought there had to have been some changes.
Will I return? Maybe.
The memory of the difficulty of the task (the call center experience was brutal), with the proliferation of options to realize the same result, are driving me to consider otherwise.

Plus, a day AFTER the appointment, I received this:

Key take aways:

  • It’s never just an appointment feature. Every step, every task, is a necessary part of getting to the human’s desired outcome. If you make it even harder than it used to be, you’re losing. Still, one of the most painful human interactions / experiences introduced by the inter webs’ magnificence is the security feature: username/password.
  • Never underestimate the emotional power of a desired outcome. And, how you might be standing in the way of it. Human psychology, and the hundreds of thousands of years of our brains’ molding around being a human; mental models, biases, and the cell biology and physiology therein, are a tough opponent. A hair cut or hair-do for a special occasion comes with intense feelings of loss aversion, social belonging and status. Your appointment setting feature is either driving confidence in the human towards their desired outcome (for all of those things), or making them more nervous and anxious about not attaining those. That cascade of feelings takes seconds to morph into behaviors that drive those customers to another easier, simpler solution promising the same desired outcome.


Tanya Maslach Written by: