Software running rings around us

I've had two less than fun experiences this week in terrible, horrendous user experience - mostly related to software, but also very closely tied in with horrible customer support. The first was with Sony, in regards to a problem I've had on a brand new (and top of the line) laptop.

Case 1: Sony and the never ending update The Sony Vaio Z I've been playing with the last few weeks is turning out to be a wonderful machine, and I'm loving it. But this week, I hit a small snag.

A piece of software called Vaio Update ran, and told me that there were several pieces of software needing updating. I hate bloatware along with the best of us, but for my sins I let it run, and they all updated. The dreaded 'you must now reboot' message came up, I killed my apps and rebooted, and the world was fine.

For a minute or two, that is, until the update software ran again - and promptly told me that two of the updates needed to run again.

To cut a long story short, this ran a number of times before I twigged that it was updating the same two versions of the same two programs continuously, in a little vicious circle. It would download them, attempt to install them, give me errors that they were already installed, force a reboot, run, and then tell me they still needed updating.

From a software user experience point of view, there were two killer problems. First the program automatically ran on reboot, beginning the cycle over again, and second (and more importantly) it forced a reboot with no choice after it failed - despite the fact that nothing had even been installed. No buttons to cancel, no X to close the dialog, even force closing the popup causes windows problems.

I contacted Sony about this, and received the standard first line of support response - basically an automated email telling me to run the update - completely missing the point that it was the update itself that was going wrong.

It took several other emails and even a PDF of screen shots to get across that this wasn't a user error - and now several days have disappeared without a further word. Nice customer service.

Case 2: NewScientist and the unusable user name I love reading NewScientist, and recently decided to subscribe. I did that, and then once it was paid for went onto their site to register, so I could read the online content.

The site asked me for my subscriber number and surname, then asked me to enter a username, password and email address.

When I entered a username I use for sites such as this, the site gave me an error, telling me the username was already in use - at which point I remembered I'd registered it previously. However when I went to log in, it told me the username had been cancelled. Ah.

So I created a new username, entered my email address, and tried again. This time, it told me that the email address I'd entered was connected to 'another' username, so I couldn't use it. Ah, indeed.

So, I tried using a different email address. This time I received a dire warning that this was a different email address to the one registered against my subscription, and that I should not proceed.

Catch 22 again - I couldn't use the username I wanted to, I couldn't revive or use the one I already had, I couldn't use the email address I normally use, and I couldn't use a new one without risking 'something' going wrong... And all I wanted to do was to read some content online...

I contacted NewScientist support, and explained what was going wrong. I told them that the original registration was still there, and could they maybe just attach it to my subscription, or remove it so I could re-register from scratch.

Again, the human element extended the terrible user experience. Again, I receive an email that is insulting in it's response and lack of match to my request for help. It simply tells me how to go online and register, with no attempt to even register the problems I'd listed.

To their credit within 24 hours of my response to this I had a second more personal response - although the words "We will contact the UK and see if we can get it set up at our end" were not exactly brimming with confidence...

Case 3: Google Adsense and Schrodinger's Cat Ding ding, round three.

This week I finally got around to playing with the Google settings for my site, and needed to create an Adsense account to get a particular function working. I have Adwords and Gmail and several other Google functions, so loaded up the Adsense page and logged in.

It told me I didn't currently have an Adsense account, and asked me if I wanted to create one. I said yes, and away we went filling out forms for a page or two. All good so far.

Near the end of the process it asked if I had a Google account, and when I said yes it asked if I wanted to use that account for Adsense. Sure, I say, and enter my login details. It's at this point that the wheels well and truly fall off the cart.

This email address already has an Adsense account, the page tells me, and therefore I can't use it.

So, yet again we have a nice software led vicious circle - I don't have an Adsense account and therefore need to create one, but can't create one because I already have one. Like Schrodinger's

User Experience is so often written off as a nice-to-have, or as an almost irrelevant layer on top of the 'key' technology and content, the true cost - in terms of lost business and reputation alone - can be huge. If only these (and other) companies measured that cost, they may do more to pick up and respond to their emails.

Gary Bunker

the Fore