Sunday, May 09, 2010

Don't blame it on the sunshine (Blame it on the user)

I think overtly hostile error messages are less common than they used to be. Years ago I was closely involved in an application that included, to my embarrassment, the prompt "Incorrect" (even though the application was supposed to be for exploring people's preferences for categorisation).

But such messages are still out there. Here's one that says "You've entered something incorrectly, you stupid idiot". Actually, it doesn't say "you stupid idiot"; that's implied.

In the real world, there are probably more examples. There's a shop in Melbourne with a door that slides to open. A sign on the door says "Slide! It's not a freaking Rubik's Cube". (I'm not making that up.)

Finally, I came across this friendly little message at an airport. To paraphrase, it says "We have crappy tables and things fall off them. If that happens to you, then tough! Oh, and by the way, have a nice day."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Celebrating the unnecessarily difficult

I have a nice collection of screen grabs, error messages and the like. Here are some that fall into the category of the unnecessarily difficult.

The party of the first part shall be known as...
I encountered this when filling in a registration form. The form asked (not unreasonably, I thought), for my first name and last name. This often causes designers angst because of the fact that either first name or last name may be the "family" name. There are various workarounds. But this one intrigued me because it actually had a message that if I was "not sure how to divide" my name into first and last, I could read a Help article about it.

And indeed there was a whole help article on the topic. I was a tad surprised, but when I saw that one of the names used to illustrate how to divide one's first and last name was Kurt Gödel, I realised that I had stumbled into a deep philosophical warp - a chronosynclastic infundibulum, perhaps.

Almost everything I need to know
When Telstra BigPond was my ADSL provider, they would occasionally send me a notification that I was approaching my monthly limit, but they never stated the date on which it would reset. I had a somewhat lengthy correspondence with them on the topic. I would suggest they improve their information, and they would send me an automated response that ignored my suggestion, and so on. Eventually we concluded on this note:

"...I was stating (and am restating for the third and final time) that
BigPond would improve its customer service if its email notifications
specified the relevant dates. If you'd like to pass on my suggestion
to someone who cares about improving customer service, please do so.
If not, please don't bother sending me any more vague communications
with links explaining how usage is calculated..."

Miracle of miracles, BigPond subsequently began to include the key information (reset date) in their notifications.

When I switched one of my mobile accounts to Telstra, I was reminded that there are organisations that learn, and organisations that don't. I received a usage notification that failed to specify  the reset date.

Messages can usually be improved by removing information. And indeed this one would benefit by the omission or simplification of the unnecessarily detailed usage limit, and by shortening the "Call Telstra..." sentence.

Less often, they can be improved by adding information. Here, the omission of one simple piece of information (the reset date) has converted what could have been useful and simple to something annoying and virtually useless (not to mention counter-productive).

Incidentally, the lack of this vital piece of information is a classic example of designing for the organisation's needs instead of those of the customer.

Much more than I need to know
This complicated table and associated text explains when the settlement date will be for trades done in a holiday period.

It took me a while to figure out what this table was trying to tell me, which was:

Trading date      Settlement date
Wed 30                     Tue 5
Thu 31                       Wed 6
Fri 1                            Thu 7
Mon 4                        Thu 7

The desire to provide a lot of information often subverts the need to communicate clearly. In most cases a simplified view is better - you can always include a link to more detailed information for the truly interested reader.

Check box? No, let's do things the hard way
My final example is just weird. Instead of using a check box, this site wanted me to actually type either "Yes" or "No". When I failed to do so, a dialog box reprimanded me.

I really don't know why a check box wasn't used in this instance. I do remember years ago having a discussion with a legal department that wanted to be "sure" that users had "really read" some terms and conditions, but for signing up to an Arts House program? Surely not.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Rude onerous forms

When I talk professionally about websites, I’m often asked for examples of good and bad design. I’m reluctant to provide examples of bad sites, primarily because it’s so easy to sit on the sidelines and snipe, without knowing the full circumstances and constraints of the design team.
In my personal life, however, I’m quite happy to whine, and I do so frequently when something irks me.
Recently Marcus’ teacher recommended to the kids that they get a magazine called "How your body works". Each week you get a different part of the body, and in the end (after thirty-something issues and a re-mortgage) you have a 1m tall skeleton with various organs and you’re ready to be a surgeon.
We bought the first issue at the newsagent. It included the lower half of the skull, with 32 teeth to be individually inserted. Marcus (and I) loved it, and the accompanying text was good, so we decided to take up the included subscription offer and order online.
That’s when things started to go awry, because the process of subscribing was painful.
Why? Where do I start…
Firstly, I had to register. That’s a pain, but I can understand the business rationale, even though it's funny that in the real world everyone is much happier to take your money. Even Amazon makes you register.
In order to register, I had to create a "login name". I already have a name, and I’m quite happy with it. I’ve had it for years. But now, apparently, I needed a new one (and it had to be a maximum of 10 characters). (Amazon doesn't force you to take a new name; I guess they're happy with a more casual relationship, and aren't insisting on marriage.) I also had to specify a security question. Why all this? Presumably because in my ongoing relationship with Bissett Magazine Services I would occasionally forget my user name and have to be reminded of it. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I can't imagine that there are all that many customers who order lots and lots of things from Bissett Magazine Services.
When specifying the "deliver to" details (and bear in mind I was ordering for a child), I had to specify date of birth and gender. Why Bissett Magazine Services consider themselves to be entitled to not only ask for this information, but make it mandatory, is beyond me.
Thankfully Marcus, despite his tender years, is an aspiring privacy activist, so he instructed me to falsify his date of birth and gender.
(Guideline 1 for online empowerment: When forced to answer inappropriate questions, always lie).
At the bottom of the form, there were no fewer than 6 checkboxes. I always feel it’s antisocial to default to the option that disadvantages the customer, particularly if you bury the key information so deeply in the accompanying text that the customer has to put effort into decoding it.
In any case, having waded through this unnecessarily intrusive form, I clicked "Confirm".
The next page told me that my chosen user name (the entity formerly known as "login name") was "…not available. Please try a new login and password". That was bad, but what was much worse was that my new paramour had thrown out most of the information I’d already provided. (What was your name again?)
This is incredibly rude. It’s the sort of behaviour you might expect from a vengeful bureaucrat in a centrally planned economy. Making people do extra work because you’ve been too lazy or incompetent to do a decent design job is unacceptable.
At this stage I would normally shoot off an angry email to the organisation in question and forget about it. However, Marcus was at my side with his education at risk, so I went back and tried again.
And again was rejected.
You can see in the image the user name I finally used.
I would bet good money that Bissett Magazine Services has a database full of user names like this. I’d also bet good money that lots of people lie about their date of birth and gender, so their database is at least partially corrupt.
I’d also bet good money that many people quit in frustration because of the unnecessarily difficult process they’re forced to go through.
The magazine better be damn good.