Archive for the 'error recovery' Category

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.

When things go wrong, communicate

In three separate instances recently, I have been frustrated by poor communication on the part of service industries I deal with.

In the first instance I was drastically affected by an airline schedule change, and it was not made at all clear to me what my options were–and when I worked it out and tried to to take advantage of the best option for me, the airline tried to charge me for it, claiming I had “already agreed to the schedule change”.  To be fair, I did eventually get what I needed with no additional fees to pay, and I was thrilled, but it seems a bit sad to be thrilled by an airline doing the right thing.

In the second, I found out that my favourite class was being cancelled at my local recreation centre from feedback they posted publically to another class, saying they would be moving that class into the room we had previously occupied.

In the third case, I was phoned the day before a booked appointment to say that I would not be able to keep my appointment (and offered two less convenient times as alternatives) because the professional I was to see was “not in”.  When I pressed to try and see the person with whom I had an existing relationship, I was told they had left the business.  This from a business that would charge me a 50% cancellation fee if I were to cancel within 24 hours of an appointment.

In all three of these cases, the disappointing thing that happened was inevitable, and I am not blaming the companies concerned for what happened.  What I am blaming them for, and what really made me angry, was their inability to communicate with me properly and in a timely fashion about the issues which affected me, and the paucity of alternatives I was offered (at least in the first and third cases).

Things go wrong in life, particularly in those industries where a product and a service are sold together.  In most cases users will be pretty forgiving if they understand what has gone wrong, and you communicate with them and explain what their options are from the outset.  In the instances where something goes wrong, communication is the key to keeping a user as happy as it is humanly possible to do, and keeping them using your service rather than anyone else’s.

Has anyone else had an experience where communication made the difference between grudging satisfaction and outright annoyance?

Voyage: A road to nowhere

Voyage is a novel feed reader that displays content in a 3D-appearing space, and despite my well-documented reservations about 3D interfaces, I tried to give Voyage a go.  I have to assume that Voyage is not actually a production-level RSS service, but rather a demonstration system, because it is lacking some fundamental features of RSS readers including:

  • Personalisation: You can’t create your own account on Voyage, which would mean you had to re-add your feeds every time you visited the site.
  • RSS search: Voyage forces you to know the RSS URL of the feed you want to access–not the name of the site or the site URL, but the RSS URL.  This is a big ask of the average user
  • Reading: To actually read any interesting RSS feeds you leave Voyage and go to the original site, even in cases where the feed is full-text (rather than an “atom”).
  • Pictures: The site does not display pictures. This is a bit of a problem for picture-oriented blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger

Given these limitations, this display feels more like a discovery service for new blogs (along the lines of the liveplasma music and movie discovery service), but it does not have the back-end database of recommendations.  Either way, there are considerable usability problems with this interface:

  • The text is not clear and readable
  • The 3D-ness of the interface doesn’t add anything (the only dimension that appears to have any meaning at all is the forward and back one), and does make things harder to find (indeed, included in the 23 things task is the “add a feed and try to find it” puzzle).  Given that 3D interfaces perform deomnstrably (PDF) worse in information organisation tasks, and this interface does not have to be 3D, this is a serious usability concern
  • The feeds area looks as though you ought to be able to click n the feeds to go to them.  Instead clicking on them deletes them, which given that you need to know the feed URL of a site to add it, is a high cost error for a simple action
  • It simply isn’t clear what many of the interface elements (space, colour, the horizontal line) mean, making the interface difficult to learn
  • it is difficult to navigate back “out”once you have selected something, meaning that the navigation is difficult and actions cannot be easily undone

Each of these concerns is in contravention of at least one of this excellent list of usability first principles, meaning that basically Voyage is hard to use.  Not only is it difficult to use, but it doesn’t offer either a decent feed reader or an interesting discovery service, so there is nothing in the user experience that is compelling enough to entice users back.  Maybe in a couple of years this concept will be more fully fleshed out, but in the mean time I am going to stick with Google Reader, which does reading and recommendations very well indeed.

Websites should not make users “error”-prone: Airlines are wasting my time

I’ve been thinking about why airlines have been on this blog so often of late, and I have come to the conclusion that it must be because I travel more often than average, and small things that might not be annoying if they only affected me once a year have been affecting me roughly once a month for the past four months.

This time it is an airline booking website that has frustrated me, and (worse) wasted my time (which is, after all, the only thing in life that is completely irreplaceable, once spent).  I tried to book a domestic flight on Air New Zealand, and thus went to the local New Zealand website.  I searched for a flight, found an appropriate flight time and price, and tried to book the flight using Airpoints dollars.  After being redirected through a log-in page, I was shown the following error message:

Australian airpoints members must use the Australian Website

When I clicked the continue button, it took me to the Australian site, but it had not passed on the search or selections I had made on the New Zealand site, so I had to perform that search over again (and then when I did, the prices presented were quoted in New Zealand dollars and the Australian price did not show until I had selected a flight).  There is no way I could have known this in advance, because there is no standard for which regional variant of an airline website users should use (Qantas insists you use the website of the country where your flight will originate, Air New Zealand likes you to use the site where you live, for example), and nowhere on the Air New Zealand website does it actually say which variant to use.

There are two problems with this scenario:

  1. I am not Australian, and there is no reason for my Airpoints membership to think I am.  The membership was created in New Zealand, and it has me registered as a New Zealand passport holder.  Now, I am not patriotic, and I don’t particularly care about a website calling me Australian, but the text is misleading and could actively confuse some users (or seriously annoy users more patriotic than me). It should read “Airpoints members resident in Australia…” (because the sole reason it thinks I am an Australian is my address).
  2. The website did not (though this is a technically easy feat) pass on what I was trying to do — I landed on a search screen on the Australian web-site and had to begin the booking process again from the start.  At best this is annoying and a waste of my time, at worst it could have meant I missed out on fast-selling sale fares.

Nowhere on any of the Air New Zealand websites does it tell you that you must book through your local version if you want to use your Airpoints membership to provide your information, accumulate points, or spend your accumulated points, nor does it use the IP address of your computer (the number your computer identifies by on the internet) to redirect you before you begin searching.  This is an easy error to make, and the time cost in recovering from it is relatively high (the two minutes it might take to make a booking basically doubles, given that the user has to start over).  Air New Zealand has ample opportunities to prevent this “error” (I find it hard to call reasonable user behaviour an error), and also to make it easier for users to recover from the error without costing them a lot of time.

Errors are something that should be considered in the design of any interactive system — both how to make it harder for user to make them, and how to make it easier for user to recover when they do make them — and Air New Zealand has failed in this.  Are there any systems you make mistakes in all the time?  It might not be your fault.


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