If you follow me on the Twitters (@6stringbeliever), you’ve probably figured out at this point that I’m a big fan of Square. I’m particularly interested in Square because most of the technical writing work I do for my day job is for a number of the big players in the very payment processing industry that Square is working to disrupt. From my experience, payments by and large has not gotten the memo about user experience. We’ll come across a small company here or a single group in a larger company there that pays some attention to design and usability. But mostly, it’s pretty brutal.

Payments is an industry that is ripe for disruption.

So when I see stories like this: Bank of America, First Data unveil mobile credit-card processor, I’m pretty sure once again someone up high said, “What’s this Square thing? We need an “app” with a clever dongle, too!”

Payments still follows a feature-driven approach to product development. Pile them on hard and fast and he who has the most features at the end wins the sale. And maybe throw in a little FUD on a credit card fraud for good measure. So it has been unsurprising to me that in response to the growth of Square, we’ve seen a slew of mobile apps with clever dongles.

And this completely misses the point.

(Well, almost; mobility is one of the selling points.)

According to Square,  “more than half of the merchants using Square had not previously accepted credit cards.” That’s a massive new market.

So why is Square so appealing?

  • You can sign up and start taking payments within about 5 minutes. (I’ve done this myself.) Signing up for a merchant account with one of the big payment processors requires filling out a whole bunch of obscure forms with a sales rep. And once you’ve cleared underwriting (if?), you’ve got to be boarded onto their systems before you can accept payments. It can take days or weeks.
  • The rate structure is incredibly simple. One for keyed, one for swiped, or a single monthly fee. Working with traditional processors, the fee depends on what your industry is, how you accept payments, what data you collect, and what card type you are processing, among other things. The documents describing all the possible rates are dozens and dozens of pages. And that’s just interchange. Forget about all the additional account and product specific feeds you may end up paying. The fees are so opaque and confusing, one of the most common phrases I have to write is, “Don’t do this or you’ll get downgraded to a higher rate for this transaction.”
  • The app is simple, easy to use, attractive, and (dare I say?) a little bit fun. I have documented more payment applications, hardware terminals, virtual terminals, and weird mobile devices than I care to remember. From time to time, I come across an application that’s not too bad, but for the most part, the applications are clumsy, ugly, and rife with usability issues. A sea of poorly labeled fields (that you’ll probably never use), confusing layouts, transaction types you’ve never heard of, and clumsy, and unwieldy plug-ins for connecting peripherals are the norm. And I have never once heard of the development team actually going out to watch someone use their product in the wild.

But payments is too focused on features and not focused on how people actually use the products. So, they see Square and think Mobile! App! Cute Dongle!

And completely miss the point.

Payments is ripe for disruption. There’s still time for that disruption to come from within the industry. But if you want to beat Square, look to the experience, not just the features. Copy the painless sign up, simple rate structure, and focus on how customers use the products. Don’t just copy the mobile app and cute dongle.