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Digital Expectations, Physical Limitations

I want to reflect on a phenomenon I’ve identified that seems to be largely unsolved. Specifically, I’m interested in the dissonance between expectations we’ve learned from our always-on digital world and the limited ability of our physical world to meet those demands.

Consider this scenario…

Where’s My Coffee?

I’m tired and running late. I open the Starbucks app. I order a Grande coffee from the location on 47th and Broadway in Manhattan.

I’m already feeling stressed, but employees at my favorite Starbucks are significantly more stressed.

Two years ago they were accustomed to dealing with lines that looked like this:

Long Starbucks line
Starbucks line... not sure what's going on with green and purple over there.

But these days there is another much longer line lurking behind the counter.

It looks like this:

Starbucks order labels
Starbucks mobile orders automatically print order labels for fulfillment.

When I arrive at the physical location, the sticker machine is spewing orders so quickly that one employee has to reach down and pick stickers up from the floor.

On one end of the store stands a group of frustrated customers who placed mobile orders. They were promised no lines and a quick pickup. Yet, they’ve found themselves crammed between the bathroom and the milk table, waiting impatiently, pining for their pre ordered skim lattes. They’re wondering if waiting in line would have been a better option.

On the opposite end of the store is a physical line comprised of equally disgruntled customers. They’re more organized, wedged between those poles with ropes strewn between. They’re mad because the line feels a lot longer than it is. And they’re right. The internet is coughing up orders while these neophytes wait their turn. They’re wondering if ordering via the app would have been a better option.

There is not a happy customer in the store.

Supply vs. Demand, Demand, Demand

Prior to the introduction of mobile orders, demand was largely self-regulating. A customer walked into the store, saw a long line, and turned around. If they chose to stay, they accepted the impact of their decision on their time.

Now we have a situation where app users have no way of knowing how high demand is at their chosen location. They don’t have the tools to make a smart decision. Furthermore, customers placing physical orders wait patiently while digital orders jump to the front of the queue unabated and completely unregulated.

Through all this, Starbucks employees are clearly doing their best to cope with limited supply and overwhelming demand. They’re trying to reconcile the length of the physical line with the rate at which orders are printing and falling to the floor. Their former productivity gauge (the physical line) has been supplanted by a firehose of existential dread.

Embracing Constraints

I’m no economist, but I am a designer. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a designer it’s this:

Constraints are a good thing.

Consider this Fast Company article where a study at The University of Amsterdam found people who encounter obstacles are able to “think in a more all-encompassing fashion”. Or consider how often poetry adheres to constraining literary forms like haikus or sonnets. The constraints fuel creativity.

In a data-driven world full of apps and boundless computing resources, the constraints we need to be thinking about most are likely not on a screen or easily remedied by throwing money at more servers.

We need to remember that humans – the supposed benefactors of technology – come with a set of constraints too.