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.


  1. Hi Gerry,

    Neat post - Telstra (& others) continue to ignore users, user experience & common sense - look forward to many more years of frustration & some entertainment....

  2. Oh they are hilarious, especially the last two. The mind boggles.