Square's Invisible Mobile Payment Solution: Software That Gives You Superpowers

“A lot of people think that design is adorning something,” Robert Andersen began as we sat down. As creative director at Square, Andersen does the kind of design that people aren’t supposed to notice. “It’s not visual.” On the contrary, in the mobile world, the best design makes the software disappear.

Square’s first product, a credit card reader that plugs into smartphone audio jacks, was spare when it began, but since then, the company has focused on taking things away. “If it has to exist, we want it to look nice,” Andersen says, but if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there at all. 

The Square gizmo became iconic enough that PayPal shamelesly ripped it off, but the Ebay subsidiary was too late. Square was already on to a software-only solution. Now Square users can pay in person without taking their phones out of their pockets at all.

Pay With Square is a leap of faith,” Andersen says, referring to the company's latest service. The new app stores credit card info and charges it online, so there’s no need to deal with plastic. It can be unsettling the first time you use it. You might wonder whether the transaction really happened. But in place of clunky, physical transactions, Square has designed human interaction into the exchange.

The merchant accepts the payment with Square Register, another app for iPad with which he or she can process checkouts via Pay With Square or the plastic card reader, which Square mails out for free with each download.

When you open a tab on Pay With Square at a store, café, restaurant or food cart, the merchant sees your name and face appear on Register. When you check out, you give your name, so the merchant knows on whose tab to put your order. When the payment goes through, your phone buzzes, and the merchant says you’re all set. That’s it.

You can open a tab manually from the store’s card in the app. But at the bottom of each card, there’s an option to “Auto-Open Tab When Near.” If you switch it on, your phone will detect when you’re close to the place, open your tab automatically, and close it when you leave. Your phone never has to come out of your pocket.

Likewise, on the merchant’s side, Register keeps track of when customers are nearby and ready to pay. Since it shows their names and faces and keeps track of their visits, the merchant has a powerful customer service advantage: “Hi, Anna. How are you? Would you like the usual?”

Paying for things isn’t fun. When you go to a restaurant, you’re not looking forward to the experience of paying. So Square tries to optimize for the parts of the experience that can feel good. “You feel like a V.I.P” when the merchant knows your name and how you take your coffee, Andersen says. “It shouldn’t feel like an act of payment.” 

“Payment experiences involve a lot of hassles,” Andersen says, and the stampede of mobile payment technologies has tried to solve this in so many different ways.

Andersen doesn’t mince words talking about payment via near-field communications (NFC), such as Google Wallet, which requires phones with chips installed and NFC readers in the store. He doesn’t want a world of “fumbling robots tapping things against a terminal.” There’s too much in the way.

Higher technology made payments more complicated. As our economies gained complexity, so did our media of exchange. But now we’re over the hump, and mobile networking can make things simpler again. It’s not just true of payments but of software itself. Lazily designed technology gets in your way. Careful design makes technology disappear, and that’s what makes it magical. Andersen sums it up: “I like software that gives you a hidden superpower.”