Apologising: Google is doing it right

As some of you will know, gmail went down for 100 minutes early thismorning.  I did notice it, but assumed it was my internet connection acting weird again–and I didn’t really need to read email at 7AM anyway.  For people elsewhere, however (for example in the US where this was anything from midday to close of business) and even people in New Zealand where the workday was just beginning this could have been a real problem, especially for those using gmail for business porposes.

Given how reliable Google usually is, this sudden and lengthy failure will understandably shake confidence in the service, and may even make people more righteously angry than service failures by unreliable companies (consider my eyerolling acceptance above, when I thought the problem was my ISP).

Generally speaking, users can think one of three ways when things go wrong (and lets face it, things do go wrong sometimes with any product or service):

  • That the product or service is unreliable and therefore they have lost faith in the product or service and the parent company
  • That something went wrong, but that the company did what they could about it and the solution was acceptable so they will continue to use the product or service
  • That the resolution to the problem was not satisfactory, but that they have no option but to use the company next time anyway (for example when the company has a monopoly–if this is the case though, as soon as the company no longer has a monoply they can expect customers to jump ship).

Google probably has a lot of people in the second category after today, because they did two things right: They updated people, and they wrote a fabulous and public apology.  The apology was probably even more effective than one normally would be because a large company apologised for an outage in a free service, but there are a few other things Google did right:

  • They apologised unreservedly, and with an understanding of their users.  There was no “we’re really sorry but it wasn’t our fault” or “we’re really sorry but you shouldn’t be so mad”–they understood why people might be annoyed, and they said sorry.
  • They explained the cause of the problem.  Not everyone is going to care about this, but it is good practice to explain for those who do, when writing for a public audience
  • They described what they are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • They subtly reminded users why they chose gmail in the first place, not by saying “we are the most reliable”, but “we’re trying to keep failures rare”.
  • The apology was public (right up there on Google’s gmail blog), but not forced on those who didn’t notice the failure.

This is probably the work of Google’s PR people, but dealing with the failures that inevitably happen in life is a really important part of good user experience, and (I swear I don’t work for Google) this is one that Google have done really well.

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