I want to buy a coffee with an app – how hard can it be?

Mindlessly self-indulgent app developers have a laugh at our expense

Something for the Weekend, Sir? I can't get it up. Give me a few moments and I'll try again. Yes, I have tried rubbing it but thanks for the suggestion. What's that? I'm grasping it too firmly? Or I'm flashing in the wrong direction? Tell you what, I'll keep fiddling with it while you satisfy one of your other customers.

How difficult can it be to buy a coffee?

An orderly queue of fellow addicts of the roasted bean is lengthening behind me as I flounder at the till. The intention is to pay the Romanian barista for my drink using the coffee house's customer loyalty app but I can't get the damn thing up on my screen. It's especially infuriating that it had launched correctly on my smartphone just a minute ago and was running absolutely spanky when I checked it as I stood in line. But now that it's my turn to be served, the app has spontaneously switched into Act Like An Arse mode.

The potential of squeezing childish sexual double-entendres from this humiliating circumstance is no consolation at all, not that I would stoop so low. My fingers dance up and down my shiny stiff device. Why does it have to be so hard? It begins throbbing. "Are you in yet?" purrs the caller.

Admittedly some of blame is mine for insisting on buying things using an app rather than with, oh I dunno, money. That said, I have found that nothing is more likely to set eyes rolling at a cash till than offering actual cash. It demands too much time of your barista to mess around with exchanging notes and coins when they should be occupied with the essential tasks of the job, such as hunting through cupboards for the soya milk or asking you to confirm your order and then immediately triggering some hissing bastard of a machine to make a noise like a Saturn V taking off as you try to reply.

The last time I offered cash as a first resort, at a little kiosk at my local train station, the woman at the till frowned and queried whether I had "any another method of payment". Surely she understands that a percentage of what she charges for a coffee would immediately be sucked away in transaction fees? Oh well. After passing my handset over the contactless pad, I made sure to flourish it over the empty paper cup that she'd labelled "Tips - thank you!" Judging by the fixed look she gave me, I feel confident that she appreciated the gesture.

Since last Christmas, I have expanded my scope for payment apps to encompass a variety of coffee house chains. This is because friends and family are as environmentally conscious as I am and, knowing my addiction to freshly prepared coffee, chose to present me with reusable travellers' mugs as gifts. I am now contributing to saving the planet by owning a dozen solid plastic reusable cups that will probably outlast all life on it. On the other hand, a reusable cup brings personal financial benefits when you use them at big-chain coffee shops.

Armed with a reusable cup and the relevant coffee shop app, I can get a discount on the price. Or an extra stamp. Or some points. Or a choice of something or other, I can't quite remember.

A coffee is a coffee. Money is money. Since all it does is use one to pay for the other, electronically, how complex could a coffee house app possibly be to use? The answer, of course, is utterly batshit crazy in its catastrophic yet wholly unnecessary peak among Himalayan levels of complexity.

One app requires you to navigate three levels of menus before reaching the payment screen, making the bizarre assumption that it's more important to fill the immediate interface with vomit-inducing photos of drinks that look like someone sneezed on the ice cream at a children's birthday party before taking a shit on the custard.

Another such app requires you to swipe to see your points or stamps or whatever its infantile customer loyalty system uses, only to fail to respond to your touch gestures. Once you have swiped in frustration about 20 times, it goes nuts and the interface flies from screen to screen completely out of control and then collapses in exhaustion – all while you are standing looking stupid at the till.

Yet another only works if the shop itself has a stable Wi-Fi connection. Think about it: when was the last time that you found a coffee shop offering Wi-Fi that comes even close to achieving the speeds and reliability of that 9600 dial-up modem you had back in the '90s? Most shop till systems depend on cell networks or cabled connections, but oh no, not at this place. Whenever its local crappy Wi-Fi craps out, which is most of the time, you simply cannot pay using its own app – even when your own smartphone 4G is running just fine.

There is no way such appalling customer loyalty and payment apps end up like this out of developer incompetence. These are big coffee shop chains with bags of cash and immense marketing resources, so they can afford a few grand on an app that only needs to do two things: (1) pay for a drink and (2) tick your loyalty card.

As I continue to fumble with my pocket rocket at the till while fellow commuters frown and avoid direct eye-contact, the stomach-churning realisation forms in my mind: if such shit-eating examples of app development can't be attributed to incompetence, it must be… deliberate.

No other explanation fits. These apps are designed to look all sparkly when you're sitting at home or at your desk but run secret calls that check to see if you're actually in one of their shops. Having tested this further, I can see that each app always works OK when you join a queue but the moment you reach the till, it switches into subroutines to ensure the app freezes up, shows a blank screen or simply goes fucking mental. And it does it every time! I certainly can't fault the reliability of the programming.

As they say in sarf Lahndun, gor blimey Mary Poppins summun's avvin a larf.

Eventually I escape from the shop, eco-friendly bamboo mug (William Morris wallpaper motif on the side, dontcha know) in my hand, having made a fool of myself in front of the trendily bearded throng by paying with a £20 note and then dithering over the tips dish because my loose change comprised a tenner, a fiver, two £1 coins and a ten pence piece. I drop the last-mentioned coin into the dish. No doubt they will remember my generosity at their Christmas party.

All I want to do is pay for it, all of this shit, as the song says, like a god damn son of a bitch. Your apps, though, are utterly mindless.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. By sheer coincidence, he has just received a message from Starbucks to tell him they are working on their app and making “behind-the-scenes” updates to their servers. He wonders what a front-of-stage server update might entail and whether or not he can buy tickets to watch. @alidabbs



Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2018