To be a postman in digital age

An UX Research to better understand the importance of interaction.

In the context of automation, computing assistance and tracking delivery, the French Postal Group have equipped their postmen with a smartphone in order to assist them.

Even if today, it sounds obvious to equip digitally workers, how can we assure the creation of better services or the improvement of workflow? To take advantage of the Virtual World, we need to understand more the importance of interaction. That is why La Poste asked User Studio to follow 5 postmen during deliveries to observe how a postman uses his smartphone before and during delivery.

The importance of mental map

The French delivery is more than 500 years old, the story starts in 1477 when Louis XI built Postal Inn. It was only 6 years ago that 1000 postmen were provided with a smartphone, and to this year every postmen posses one.

Postmen didn’t wait for digital devices to optimise their delivery.
The round, called “tournée” in French, is based on a man capacity to memorise the district configuration and to divide the delivery into precise steps. 

Starting my User Research, I observed that the postman creates a mental map of his tournée du jour. This begins during preparation when the postman orders and groups objects meant to be delivered. The physical world gives the main possibility to spread everything around us in order to group or sort objects.

Here Bastien, a postman, uses elastic to group letters. This is a rough estimation based on the street configuration.
He then groups packages in different boxes. The goal of these boxes is to group different types of objects.
Bastien organised his packages following a timeline: packages in front are the next delivery.

During the delivery, the main task of smartphones is to scan or flash the object to inform the status of delivery. Postmen can also consult on the smartphone a list of tracked objects, like registered posts or tracked packages, and read some information about the package.

They confirm the end delivery on the phone and in some cases ask for a signature. In some tournées if the delivery isn’t possible, they can obtain an alternate pickup address for the package.

François flashes a package.
Romain reads on the phone informations for pickups and writes this on the delivery notice.

In fact, postmen are more focus on packages than on the smartphone, indeed they usually read and write informations directly on packages. 
I observed a postman who flashed every packages twice just in case it would not work. I realised that he was never really paying attention to the screen which gives feedbacks like the actual status of flashing. 

Maybe it’s better like this since the screen has not lots of advantages in this situation. Packages and letters are more tangible than a list on a screen. It’s easier to look back on your truck and estimate the rest of your work than to scroll and count the number of screens’ items.

At this stage, we can help postmen to be faster with easy-to-use screens, efficient workflow and comprehensible feedback. Feedbacks play a master role in interaction. For example, during a conversation, there are many feedbacks to assure a message’s transmission: we use body language, eyes movement, sounds, voices and noise. In the virtual world we need to have the same levels of feedback to assure a good interaction.

In digital, you can use many types of feedback like sounds, vibrations, and graphic informations. For example, when you use a flash scanner, light will give the feedback to inform the status of scanning. We observed that augmented smartphone with a laser flash are more efficient than a camera. Postmen are focused on the bar code and the feedback light, that is why they don’t need screens.  

How digital can help postmen to build a better mental map ?

We really see the advantages of digital when new constraints appear… With habits evolution, letters volume goes down and the job of the postman changes. That is why, La Poste develops news services and disrupts the traditional delivery. Now, postmen can visit your grandmother or read your meter, and all of these possibilities are now included in their tournées. 

In this case, there is no physical object to help the postman create a mental map like he used to have in a classic delivery. The postman reads the list of services directly on the smartphone. Digital representation needs to do the same as what packages were doing during the classic delivery : help to create a mental map of delivery services.

The problem is that the digital representation, an unordered list, is too simple. Moreover, the attention of postmen is divided into physical objects (packages and letters) and the smartphone, where the first is more tangible than the second. You cannot forget your task since the package is right in front of you whereas a digital note is hidden.

We can help postmen to have an holistic view of the delivery by generating graphic representation. So, we observed that the preparation is a really important step to anticipate the tournée, where postmen group and sort objects for delivery. At this moment, postmen do have time to watch their smartphones and analyse in details missions. We can take this opportunity to grow postmen knowledge and give them extra power.

In this screen, we represent the work volume by street.
Here, we represent the complexity of each distribution spot.
Here, we represent the volume of each task.

When we design interface, we use “Virtual World” to help people to more understand the “Real World”. Graphic representation, interactive maps, timelines… help users to build mental map of reality and sometime to have another point of view. For postmen, it’s the same, in fact they can deliver without smartphones but we can help them to anticipate actions or memorise tasks.

Conclusion

Observing the interaction between user and device is essential to build a better workflow and improve services. The quality of interaction, like between two people, depends on the context : How much time do you have to interact ? Is there too much noise so you can speak together ? Which vocabulary do you have in common? During a conversation, the quality of dialogue change the capacity of collaboration. In this way, a pretty dumb device can irritate users or stubborn devices can block the dialogue process.

It is important to ask yourself what is the goal of the new device or interface. If you want to increase workflow speed, you need to make easy-to-use screen. If you want to increase the capacity of workers in order to improve your services, you need to give holistic view to them.

I observed that when we insert digital devices, it is only to add a new functionality for a service. In the first place, La Poste gave smartphones to their employees to track deliveries, the goal to actually help postmen came afterwards. Taking only a functionality as a goal forces you to complex workflow. Instead of this, you should take the opportunity to improve the service workflow with digital device.

Thanks for reading =)

I asked if I could keep the suit, they said no. :(