Translation Is Not Transformation: A Tale of Digital and Ducks

Pete Brown
Pete Brown // October 25, 2018

What does it mean to undergo a digital transformation?

There’s certainly no shortage of consultants offering their take on this hottest of buzzwords. But do you wonder, like I do, why we’re only now talking about the digital transformation of our work life, some 20+ years after the computer/internet/digital era dawned?

I think the reason for this is because we spent a good deal of time doing what I’d call digital translation, but we only now seem to be really achieving digital transformation. Here’s what I mean by that:

In 2000, if I needed to submit a claim to my insurance company, I would call them on the phone and then they would mail (or fax) me a form with about 25 fields of information that I needed to fill out and then mail back to them. (If there are any young professionals reading, go ahead and Google fax machine. It’ll blow your mind..)

Last week, in 2018, I went to my insurance company’s website and it allowed me to download and print out the form, but I still have to fill it in with a pen and mail it back, which completely boggles my mind. So while they have enabled me to acquire my form online, everything else about their process is still analog.

It would take a matter of a few hours of development time, literally, for them to make their claim form *.pdf interactive, meaning I could download it, type in my information and perhaps email it back to them. This would constitute a digital translation, in my book. The same 24-point process in their analog world now has 24 equivalents digitally, including the receiving and sending. It seems like this is where a lot of “going digital” begins.

My motorcycle insurance purchasing process was much closer to a transformed digital experience. Once I had indicated who I was on their web form, they looked up which motorcycle I already had licensed in Ohio and asked if this was what I was seeking to insure. They were also able to pre-fill in a lot of my information based on the data they got from my motorcycle title and, and in very short order, generated a quote. I thought it was all pretty smooth and clever, until the end of the process, where, instead of a buy now button, I was provided with an agent’s phone number.


If I had wanted to talk to a human, I wouldn’t have started online.

With each passing year, it boggles my mind that we’re still filling out forms with paper and pen.

Still, for one of the big legacy insurance companies, the process was admirably digitized, and at times downright slick. They had thought through what information they could get for me, instead of asking me to fill it out myself. They had put some serious thought into how they could minimize the amount of interaction needed from me for a transaction to occur. I realize it can be difficult for big corporations to pivot their years and years of analog processes into digital experiences, which is why insurtech startups like Root or Lemonade, who can sell me a policy on my phone in just a few clicks, seem so nimble and fresh.

Each click or form field that must be dealt with by the consumer is putting an extra step between them (or more accurately, their money) and making a purchase (eg, making it your money). Transforming your analog process means more than creating a digital equivalent of each step. It involves rethinking every step in the process in order to put as little friction as possible between your customer and the transaction.

Banks, I think, are starting to get this. The idea that I have to take physical checks to the branch to deposit them seems ludicrous in a smartphone world, and now I can simply snap a photo to do the deed. And more and more banks are adopting or offering their own payment apps that make things like splitting the bill and paying up on a lost bet much easier.

But they, too, went through a long phase of digital translation. Back in 2008, my family hosted a high school exchange student from the Republic of Georgia (Hi, Ketino!). ATMs were a new experience for her, and at that time they worked like digital translations of visiting a human teller. You put your card in, entered what you wanted to do (withdraw, deposit, etc.), got your money and receipt and then it gave you your card back. Inserting and receiving your card was basically the hello and goodbye of the transaction.

But Keti, an otherwise super-bright teenager, was always walking away once she got her money and her receipt, and forgetting her card. In the year she was with us, she forgot to take her card at least four times that I can remember, and likely there were a few more that my wife handled. Our branch manager started to chuckle every time we came in to get her card back because at the time, the ATM would suck it back in and you’d need to go in and see the manager to get it back.

On the third or fourth time, as I was driving her to the bank, I asked her why she thought she was always forgetting her ATM card.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes, I am a duck.”

That’s a thing in the Republic of Georgia, apparently. As far as I can tell, it means a good-hearted forgetful person, which Keti surely was.

Keti, left, was a super bright exchange student we hosted for a year, but ATMs continued to befuddle her. Also, we totally did NOT leave my son sleeping on the subway that day, no matter what he says…

But banks—at least my bank—have finally wised up to the ducks.

About a year or two ago, they changed the ATM transaction workflow. Now you put in your card, tell the machine what you want and if you want a receipt (nice touch, making that optional), and then it returns your card to you before dispensing your cash. In fact, the machine will beep until you pull the card. No cash until you take it.

My bank made the dispensing of cash dependent on me first removing my ATM card.

I have to believe the number of forgotten cards dropped to near zero when taking your card back became a condition of getting your cash. And this is what I mean about moving beyond a digital translation of an analog process and really re-thinking and transforming what the process should be when considered digitally.

Banking with an ATM is a different experience than visiting a human teller, after all, so making the return of your card the last thing in the process doesn’t make as much sense as bumping it up, does it?

And notice this change, which took years and years to appear, has nothing to do with new technologies being delivered and everything to do with someone who works for the bank saying, “You know, people would probably stop forgetting their cards if we made them take them back before we dispensed the cash.”

I like to believe that was a SMH moment for the banking industry.

The transition time between digital translation and digital transformation can be messy. Once, my credit card info was stolen, and the thief used it to pay for a semester’s worth of courses at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. I had to admire his moxie. Part of me wished I could have covered his tuition if he’d promise to abandon his life of crime.

But here’s the thing: my bank had no problem with this transaction. In fact, only a thoughtful clerk from the University of Portsmouth caught it and gave me a call. But if I try to buy gas in Indiana, just one state over, my bank has a conniption, locking down my card and sending me texts and emails and phone calls until I swear an oath on my mother’s grave that it was me buying 25 bucks of unleaded.

I’ve also always wondered about the person at my bank who raised their hand in a meeting and said, “You know, we oughta sell stamps at our ATMs.”

Yeah. My ATM always tries to sell me some stamps before we get to the business at hand. It always feels to me like they’re some shady character standing outside a building trying to sell me something out of his trunk before I go inside.

The stamps feature has been around awhile, so I suppose the bank is making some cash doing it, but it always takes me by surprise when they make the offer. I mean, the human tellers never try to sell you anything, and they give you a lollipop.

But still, I have a bunch of claim forms I need to mail to my insurance company, so I’ll go ahead and take a book of ten.