Archive for the 'commerce' Category

One of these things is not like the others: Livingsocial’s recommender services

Last year I did an experiment: I logged every book I read, complete with tags about timing, subject matter, fiction or non-, andf themes, in Google books.  This was inherently satisfying to my curiosity (63 books last year, 24 of whiuch were non fiction), but was lacking something I’m interested in: a recommendation feature.

During the year, I discovered I could also log my books in Facebook, in a service that does have a recommender feature based on ratings (but no tags, sadly–I know, I should have just used librarything in the first damn place).  Thus I entered the exciting world of LivingSocial, which accepts ratings for books, albums, movies…and restaurants.

While I haven’t bothered too much with the music recommender service (though I should try, since my taste is all over the place), but I have found the book service and the movie service to be quite exciting–I’ve seen lots of books and movies I want to read/see.  So when I noticed last night that they also had a restaurant section, I was cautiously excited: I love food and I am always looking for places to try, but I suspected that it might be a US-only service.  It’s not, but I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, mostly because it doesn’t take into account the differences between books/movies/albums and restaurants:

  • Availability of large, relatively comprehensive catalogues: There are a wide range of relatively-comprehensive online catalogues for books and movies–think Amazon or LibraryThing. The same is not true for restaurants: there may be listings in the local yellow pages for some towns, some of which may be available online, but these listings would be difficult to harvest and far from comprehensive.  As a response to this, Livcingsocial will actually allow you to add your own restaurant listings, but only after you have rated 20 restaurants.  If you don’t do a lot of travelling, and your city doesn’t have any restaurants listed, this could be a bit difficult.
  • Location dependence: Subject to availability, playing equipment and local censorship laws, books/movies/albums may be enjoyed anywhere.  Restaurants, however, are only really available to those living or travelling (let’s be generous) within say 100 km (60 mi) of the restaurant’s physical location.
  • Amount of information required to make a decision: Everyone has certain requirements of their entertainment, for example:  some people find swearing offensive, some people dislike science fiction intensely, some people cannot abide restaurants that won’t take bookings, some people are vegetarian.  Recommendations for books/movies/music are more likely to meet people’s requirements (going back to our example those who dislike science fiction will universally rate it lower, thus feeding each other’s recommendations) and even if they don’t, it is much easier to find out ahead of time that they are bad (in the example of swearing parental advisory stickers are a good clue). In the case of restaurants, however, there are more paramters in play (food, service, noise level, ambiance, wheelchair accessibility, child-frioendliness, diaetary requirements) and this type of thing is harder to tease out in a five point rating, and often harder to discover before making the time investment to actually go to the restaurant.

The restaurant recommender is based on the same principles as the other recommenders, the amazon style “people who liked x also liked y, and you like x so you will probably like y”.  My experience with it, however, was quite frustrating: I rated a significant number of restaurants (not without some difficulty, as there aren’t that may listed in Melbourne, so I had to go to other cities I had lived in), and then clicked on “recommendations”.  Most of the recommendations were for restaurants in the US, and there was no way to generate recommendations for a a specified geographic region.  If I were travelling to the US any time soon, this might be helpful if I were going to the specific cities where restaurants were recommended for me, but generally speaking, these recommendations are useless.

The problem here is that a model that works well for small physical items has been applied to experiences, and it simply doesn’t work–making the user experience clunky and ultimately frustrating, possibly more often than it is helpful.  LivignSocial would have been better to stick with wine!

Have you ever tried a product or service from a company that did other things well only to be disappointed?

Ticketek vouchers: Buying show tickets should be fun

After the number of shows Mike and I saw last year (at last count, it was nine, ten if you count the second time we saw Priscilla), someone very thoughtfully gave us Ticketek vouchers of a significant denomination for Christmas. Sadly, this year there has been less we have wanted to see, and as a result we decided we wanted to spend the vouchers on going to see the closing night of Priscilla (that would be time number four). You see (and this is part of the user experience problems with the vouchers) we have to use the vouchers within six months, or they become worthless (never mind that rock tours last literally years, and shows run for months, nor that Ticketek has the money for the vouchers whether we use them or not, we have to find something we want to see within six months). This limitation means that we have not been able to save the vouchers for something we really wanted to see, and thus considerably reduced their value to us as a product.

The situation got worse, however, when we tried to spend the vouchers. I read the terms and conditions and discovered to my dismay that rather than book online (as we did for each and every one of the events we went to last year), we had to use the vouchers in a Ticketek agency (most of which are open during working hours). There should be no technological reason for this, as the vouchers appear to have unique numbers on them (and other vendors use online vouchers all the time), but nonetheless this is the way they must be used. Fortunately, there is an agency in a music store not far from where Mike works, so he went at lunch time to try and buy the VIP class tickets we wanted for the closing night of Priscilla. The agency worker told him that the VIP class tickets were sold out, so he phoned me asking what I wanted to do. Being somewhat sceptical, I looked up the VIP class tickets on the Ticketek website and found I could purchase them there. After a little to-ing and fro-ing where the Ticketek agent suggested I try and purchase the tickets online “because I wouldn’t be able to” and me saying I was only going to risk that if the agent would pay for the tickets if they went through, the agent phoned Ticketek and found out that in fact there were still VIP tickets available, and we might be able to use the vouchers to buy them through the agency at the theatre, but that he did not have access to them from his system. It turns out (after a significant amount of running around on Mike’s part) that you can use vouchers to purchase VIP tickets from the venue, but by the time Mike got this far there were only single seats left. Maybe we’ll see Priscilla again in New Zealand.

There are a number of usability problems with this scenario, affecting different people in the equation:

  • The six month timeframe can significantly limit the use of the vouchers to recipients due to long touring seasons and short-ish pre-season availability of tickets
  • Though it seems to me that there is no technological reason why the vouchers should not be used online, they can only be used in person, making it much more difficult in today’s “always on” world to actually purchase tickets with them.
  • The agencies where the tickets are sold do not necessarily have access to all kinds of tickets, so the vouchers can not necessarily be used to purchase the tickets you would like.
  • The information screen that the agencies have does not appear to indicate that they don’t have access to tickets (as opposed to tickets being unavailable) clearly enough — customers can be misled into believing that the show of their choice is sold out, where all they really needed to do was go to the venue (though that could be difficult if the venue is in another city).

So, while the Ticketek vouchers are a lovely gift, they have proven significantly difficult to actually use to buy tickets, which makes the process of using them less like fun and more like hard work. Ticketek could significantly improve the experience of using their vouchers by extending the period for which they are valid, and making them available to use online. In the meantime, does anyone have any suggestions for Ticketek-sold shows that are coming up? Mike and I have three months left to spend our vouchers.

Paying faster: Economic win-win and good user experience

Over the weekend, I went to a grocery store local to my home. Normally grocery shopping is not something I consider a good experience, user or otherwise. I walk faster than the average person, and I don’t like crowds. I’m irritated by not being able to find anything, and the minute I can find everything the store seems to get rearranged (apparently this is to entice me to buy more when I see new and interesting products in the space where the stuff I was looking for was last week, but it doesn’t work — it often means I leave the store without things I had intended to buy because I couldn’t find them).

Over the weekend, though, I left the store with a bounce in my step, because they had introduced something that made my life easier, and got me out of the store faster (and that small improvement was enough to change the whole tone of the visit — being a user experience geek, improved user experience — and therefore things I can blog about — really make me happy).

The usual scenario at checkout is one of three, at most stores:

  1. Stand in a feeder line for one of several express checkouts, where people have usually jammed far more than 15 things into a basket (rather than getting a trolley) to delude themselves that they are entitled to use the express checkout. Then they pay with cash, only it never occurred to them to get their wallets out at any point prior to actually having to pay, so keep waiting while they find their wallet in a large purse or backpack, or in one of their 50 pockets. Not usually so express.
  2. Stand in line for a self checkout machine, and pack your groceries yourself (I spent a summer as a packer, and I can pack into my own backpack, so I actually like packing my own groceries). If you’re lucky the machine behaves for those in front of you (and you) so that you don’t have to wait for a shop assistant to come and make it scan items correctly or deliver the right change (this is risky, so I don’t usually use this line).
  3. Find a non-express line where the person in front of you is nearly done, and check out through there. Even if the person still has 30 or so items, there is only one transaction (and thus one chance for a lost wallet), and it is only the same number of items as two express checkout customers. This is my preferred option at larger supermarkets.

Clearly a large part of my irritation with supermarkets is the time I waste standing in line (I know, I could read the magazines, but I don’t like the ones they have on display, and besides…it feels a bit wrong to read a magazine someone else will take home). So recently at my local Safeway, having taken option 3 and being ready to pay for my groceries with my credit card I looked down at the credit card terminal while I was waiting and noticed something new: I could pre-swipe my card. The screen read “Paying by card? swipe now”, and so I did. I then selected my account, and had my transaction pre-approved — all this while the cashier was still scanning my groceries. This saves a significant amount of time once the groceries are packed (especially, if like me, you can never figure out which way to swipe your card) — all the check out operator had to do was ask me if I wanted cash out, and then, unusually in Australia, the machine accepted the PIN I have on my credit card (instead of forcing me to sign).

This pre-swipe thing saves time in three ways:

  1. Encouraging shoppers to have their cards out ahead of time
  2. The check out operator not having to ask how you want to pay for your groceries (if you have already swiped your card — if you haven’t, they will still have to ask)
  3. The time taken to swipe the card and select the account (not insignificant if the card is being temperamental and/or like me you can’t figure out which way to swipe it.

There is also a fourth advantage, in that it gives shoppers something to do in that awkward time where talking to the checkout operator might annoy them or slow them down, but not talking to them feels rude. The time saving is, admittedly, in the process of grocery shopping relatively small, however, it probably represents a large saving in the time-per-transaction for the cashier (and therefore a labour cost savings for the store). In situations of long lines where people pre-swipe, though, or for those who loathe grocery shopping, this small time saving (and awkwardness aversion) can make a big difference to their experience. This is a win-win user experience improvement — it will save the grocery store money, and may have an impact on consumer impression of the store — I know it has improved my perception, and will make me more likely to use the Safeway that has implemented the system than others that have not.

Why the travel agent will survive — because airline websites are so painful

Recently I had the displeasure of doing something that should have been very pleasant — booking my flights back to New Zealand for my wedding. A friend of mine gave me the heads up that there was an especially cheap flight with Emirates around the time I wanted to go, so I duly went ahead and attempted to book the flight.

The process of booking this flight — a simple flight, only a single leg — took over an hour and a half. Partly this was because the Emirates website was painfully slow, but partly it was user interface issues. When I made an error entering the dates I wanted to travel (and I discovered this near the end of the process) I had to go back and completely start the process over — there was no way to change the travel date. When I made an error with the seats I selected I was kicked back to the personal information screen, where some of the information had reverted to the default. And when I made an error entering my credit card details, the booking failed irrevocably (while saving the incorrect details to a customer profile that could not be accessed because the server was down). When I tried to start the booking afresh, I was trapped with the bad credit card details, and was offered the choice of collecting the tickets from an Emirates office, or having them mailed to me — no e-ticket for me. In the end, we logged in with my partner’s account and booked the tickets that way, but as I said, at this point it was 90 minutes later.

I tell you this story not to deride Emirates, who are, after all, flying me to NZ for an absolute pittance, but because whenever I book with an airline, the user experience is near-universally bad. I haven’t yet found an Australian website that searches as many airlines as House of Travel in New Zealand, but when I do, I won’t be booking directly with the airlines again — travel agents know their websites have to actually offer a service if they want people to come back, and so the user experience is much, much better.


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