Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

Out of My Site!

In General GUI on July 1, 2002 at 8:21 pm

7 Easy Tricks to Keep Customers Away from Your Website

Originally published in PC Plus Magazine (Israeli edition), July 2002

Sometimes, one wonders how is it that websites so large and well-known miss such obvious glitches. Representing public corporations and organizations, they have the budget for both technology and decor. Unfortunately, actual use quickly exposes troubling errors. These errors leave visitors with a lingering sense of frustration, producing irreversible brand damage day in, day out. It often looks as if, all along those costly and long development projects, not a single person has taken a minute to try how an average user would have used the site. Modern-day kings of the virtual worlds do not wear workingmen clothes to walk through their cities at night.

Whence so many glaring, persistent errors? Perhaps, because organizations setting up websites rarely hire people to represent users’ needs during the development process.

In technology-driven organizations, and especially so online, there is but one department lending an ear to the real customer – and that would be the support department. Support can’t do much – they listen, perhaps with the occasional apology if they’re well-mannered. When they have extra resources, support develops programs to educate users how to adapt and become better netizens.

We’ll review some popular errors here. If we’ll get lucky, some CEOs will serve their engineering dept. – with trembling hands – a photocopy of this article. This will probably happen over the water cooler, or in a darker corner of the corridor – because usability rarely gets quality time.

1. Honey, the Site Disappeared!

Websites that insist on the WWW prefix may become invisible

Yahoo.com can be reached by typing exactly that – no need to actually type www.yahoo.com. The “WWW” at the beginning of the address isn’t required, and omitting it makes pronouncing the address easier. It’s not a very sophisticated trick, implementation is easy, and it makes the site’s address 4 characters shorter – a feat some marketing departments would we willing to pay thousands of dollars for, were the same number of characters to be remove from the middle part of the site’s address.

However, some sites just won’t respond to queries without the “www”. Worse: after a certain minute or two of World Wide Wait, an error message volunteers the information: “The page you are looking for is currently unavailable. The Web site might be experiencing technical difficulties, or you may need to adjust your browser settings.” Thus, the customer is told thast either the site owner is incompetent, or that the customer himself/herself is; marketing-wise, both are negative statements, doubly so when in fact both entities are not to blame.

What is this WWW, anyway? – A historical relic denoting the difference between a Web site and, say an FTP site. But the past is dead, my dear, and we are so very much alive.

2. When Failure isn’t an Orphan

Display of instruction that, when executed literally, will cause an error

Some programmers, it seems, are spending their time inventing ambiguous instructions. We know, of course, that impossible instructions in various sites were not made just to drive customers mad – it only seems that way. If ever had a non-developer spend time testing those sites, they would have immediately notice these shortcomings.

Some websites ask customers to type in credit card numbers. These numbers appear on many cards in four groups of four digits each, with spaces between the groups – altogether 19 characters per card number. However, the customer is asked to type those 19 characters in a field allowing a maximum of 16 characters. Why are customers told to embark on an impossible mission, and then blamed for the inability to complete it? This is downright misleading and abusive. If programmers needed customers to skip the spaces, they should have said so (and given a reason for such frolics).

Another widespread customer abuse trick is reserved for overseas customers. They do not live in the United States of America, so they need to fill out their country’s name. Once they did that, then they are often presented with an error message: you have neglected to fill in your state’s name.

3. The Missing Link

When vital buttons are presented in graphics only, they may become invisible

How about sites that present links in graphic buttons? Some people like to browse the web text-only, and they may be lost – but this isn’t the crux of my complaint here. The problem with graphic buttons is that the sequence and speed of their loading is controlled by several parameters, altogether hard to calculate in advance and in some cases outside the programmer’s control. One thing a programmer can do, though, is make sure the sequence of appearance of the buttons makes sense – and does not leave the customer wondering if the button list has at last finally materialized in full.

4. The Memory Game

To restore your password, websites force you to retype what they already know

Here’s what happens in many a password-protected site: the customer enters the site, and types their account name and password. They get a notice saying they can’t get in because “either your username or password did not match. Please re-enter user name and password”.

Customers often react to this piece of bad news by immediately looking to the input fields, to verify that they at least typed the username they remembered correctly. But, alas – the evil server has already erased the input fields clean. This is done for  philosophical reasons (because otherwise, if two things do not match each other, how does it follow that they both have to be deleted?). Note that this very server may have an incredible memory, fit to remember millions of details that happened at any time since its installation – but, just now, it’s got other things on its mind than helping a carbon-based life form with an itch to spend money.

Customers usually give up, and click on the “forgotten password?” button. Now, they’re allowed to enter their email address and the website emails their password to them. If customers will now type a wrong email address, the server will reply by refusing to send the password there. Wait a minute – if the server can compare email addresses and report that they exist (or not) in its database, why couldn’t it have done exactly that a second ago, thereby saving the customer some repetitive typing? Why did we have to type our email address twice?

5. Buy Something Else

When a search isn’t successful, what do you do?

Here’s what the search for “nonexistantterm” netted us in Google: “Your search – nonexistantterm – did not match any documents. No pages were found containing ‘nonexistantterm’. Suggestions: – Make sure all words are spelled correctly. – Try different keywords. – Try more general keywords.”

Shopping.com: “We couldn’t find any product matches on Shopping.com for ‘nonexistantterm’. Search Tips: Use more general search terms, Check for correct spelling or try a different word, See our Search Tips for more help”.

Amazon: “We were unable to find exact matches for your search for nonexistantterm. Would you like to modify your search and try again?”. And Hallelujah! – only on Amazon were we presented with a field, where the term “nonexistantterm” was already placed, so we could edit it – and a button, conveying the message “Search Now”.

Obviously, Amazon has a clearer idea of how to keep customers from leaving. Graciously, Amazon refrains from blaming the users for misspelling, and does not suggest the absurd idea that they use different keywords. Incidentally, this same grace allows Amazon to avoid admitting the fact that anything at all might be lacking in its catalog.

6. The Viral Marketing Vaccine

An attempt to send a page to friends may result in a warning

The almost too-popular-for-its-own-good Microsoft’s Internet Explorer allows customers to send complete Internet pages to other online customers. The act of sending stuff to other users has been termed “Viral Marketing” because of its potential to spread like wildfire.

It may come as a surprise that some sites do resist that. One way sites may abort that viral attempt is by including unsigned active-X controls in their pages. Trying to send the whole page to a friend than results in a security warning.

A more popular way to frustrate viral marketing is by sabotaging the subject line heading the email the customer is trying to compose. The New York Times, for example, feels it’s necessary to insert in every message subject line the full 3-word name of the newspaper, plus the location of the reporter, department, plus some extra spaces for good measure. Thus, space left for the actual article title is limited. When a NYT customer tried to send me a May, 2004 article on Iraq prison investigation, the NYT site suggested this title: “The New York Times Washington Interrogations M.P.’s Received Orders to Strip”.Sounds like spam to me.

7. Computerese Spoken Here

Using technical terminology can effectively scare newbies

When a customer talks about “search string”, they’re probably not very good at grammar and ask you to look for a cord they can use for their gift-wrap. But on the Internet, so many websites still use that archaic geek term, that has the grace of a middle-aged, overweight nerd. A federal site (http://www.fedforms.gov/form_search.cfm) uses that term, perhaps trying its best to behave in what it perceives is the friendly way. Not completely wrong: if you’re the Fed, saying “search string” is actually a friendly something to say.

But the real friendly thing would be to look “search string” in a dictionary. Surprise – it seems that “string” is primarily “a cord usually made of fiber”, “Something configured as a long, thin line: limp strings of hair”, “a plant fiber”, “a set of objects threaded together”, “a series of similar or related acts, events, or items arranged or falling in or as if in a line”, and just finally, “Computer Science. A set of consecutive characters”.

Oh – you mean, like, words, officer?

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