Gordon Ramsay and the UX lesson

I'm going to attempt the impossible here, and apply a little Gordon Ramsay without the need for any asterisks or bleeps.

For a while now I've been a closet fan of the Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (or RKN as I'll call it) show, in all flavors. As a businessman and a food lover, I love to see how these businesses are turned around, or not as the case may be. If you've never seen the show then the format is simple; Gordon Ramsay, a famous chef and entrepreneur, is called in to a failing restaurant of one kind or another. He eats there, he checks out their kitchen, he meets the staff, and then tries to turn a failing restaurant into a winning one - all whilst employing sufficient swear words to make a sailor blush. 

And it's always struck me that what he applies is a UX process. So here are the five reasons why that is.

Step 1: sample and evaluate

The first step Ramsay takes is to sit in the restaurant and sample a range of their food. This invariably involves him discovering that it is terrible; he chews, he swears, he spits it back out and seems horrified. Often this also involves checking out the sparsely populated tables and the poor service or decor.

In other words, he undertakes an expert review.

A good UX process, when identifying why a business is failing, starts with the same. Whilst a basic expert review involves simply throwing a checklist against a website to see which errors stick, a full UX review looks at the business delivery as a whole. What is the business trying to achieve, who is it trying to engage with, how well is that working, what's going wrong. Sure the website is checked too, but the expert review focuses on the overall health and performance of the business (or at least it does if you work with us).

Step 2: check out the production

Once he's shown sufficient disgust at the table, Gordon then heads into the kitchen. He meets the staff, he meets the head chef, and then he observes them at work - usually with an exasperated and bewildered look on his face. He watches as chaos ensues, he swears regularly as he watches how the terrible customer experience he's just sampled is crafted and built. Then he pulls the business owners aside, and tells them just how screwed they are.

In other words, he undertakes a business process review.

A good UX process will certainly start with the delivery / channel review, but will then move on to review the business. To put it bluntly, if crap is coming out of the business, then a little polishing is not going to help. Lipstick and pig should not meet - you need to fix the problem from the inside out. It's only by studying how a business is running on the inside that you can fully understand what's going wrong on the outside.

Step 3: Talk to the customers

Next, Gordon takes to the streets. He usually heads down the high street and stops people to ask what they think of the restaurant. Sometimes the problem is simply that they don't know it is there or aren't aware of what it sells, but more frequently the problem is a very simple one; they don't want what the restaurant is selling. Perhaps this restaurant is trying to sell pretentious a la carte meals in a place where local dishes are the order of the day, or perhaps it's the right food but just poor quality. Either way there is a mismatch and it's killing the business.

Sometimes he'll talk to customers in the restaurant or observes as they eat, talking to them afterwards about how their experience went (with absolutely nobody being surprised when the news is far from good).

In other words, he user tests/user researches the business.

A good UX process will perform exactly the same steps. It might be field research (interviews, observations, measurements) or it might be lab research (groups, tests, task analysis) but either way our job is to measure the shortfall between what people want, and what the business is delivering.

Gordon finds the shortfall can be in goal (the experience they are after), in content (the cuisine they seek) or in quality. And we find exactly the same. 

Step 4: Go back to basics

Now, the fixing begins.

With a good idea on what's going wrong, Gordon normally starts by attempting to fix the issues he's seen with the food and the overall experience. He identifies foods that are right for the market, he identifies an overall experience they will warm to, and he attempts to install that in the restaurant.

Often that means simplifying the menu; in an attempt to reverse the falling sales many restaurants attempt to add more and more foods, responding to every wish and shiny new thing that may draw attention. The menu grows, but so does the complexity in delivering it. The ability to match expectations falls, the clarity in purpose disappears, and the customer becomes overwhelmed with the experience and underwhelmed with the implementation.

The restaurant itself also gets a make-over, and usually for good reasons. An old-fashioned and out of date restaurant speaks to products and service that are equally as unloved; if you don't care where you serve your customers, you probably don't care what you serve.

In other words, he fixes the delivery funnel.

Again, a good UX process will move from identifying the problem (steps 1 to 3) and will then make recommendations on how to fix them. Whilst some of these can be solved on the surface, many will travel far deeper. Just as these restaurants can't be fixed by simply printing a new menu and applying some paint, the average business can't be turned around with a new template site and a few new images. If a business is failing then it's likely that the solutions involve refocusing the products and services, simplifying the product range and ensuring that the delivery funnel (people, processes and content) all work as efficiently as they need to.

This will often involve the important issue of scaling. Ramsay often spots that a kitchen can serve two people well - but at twenty it falls apart. The business simply can't handle scale that it needs to survive.

The same is true for service businesses. And just as those restaurants need an update and some love applied, so do the websites and the products of many businesses.

Step 5: Rouse the town folk

Ramsay likes to prove this format will work, so he normally calls in some friends - some foodies, some experts, a few influential locals. He'll get the kitchen to serve them, then capture their responses to the new restaurant and menu, using this to convince the owners (if they still need convincing) that this is the right way to go.

Then having come up with a new menu, straightened out (or fired) the staff, simplified and focused the kitchen and refreshed the restaurant decor, Gordon's next step is to head back to town and to drive customers back to give it a second shot. It's an interesting point in the show, as it is literally a make-or-break moment for many businesses. Rather than slowly testing out their new format it throws the kitchens right into the deep end, and some amount of chaos and thrashing normally occurs. By the end of the night though you often see a newly focused and highly driven business emerging from the ashes of the previous slow train wreck.

And yet again, that should be part of any good UX process. 

Once a business has been straightened out a sample of the audience is tested (user testing, I'm calling thy name) and once that shows the successes are waiting to roll in, the audience is re-engaged. Whilst we can't all walk down the high street with a few flyers and turn our businesses around, the digital world abounds with means to do so. A good UX process drives traffic through the improved channels, and sits back to watch the results roll in.

And here endeth the lesson - but not the UX

As he exits stage left, Gordon Ramsay normally tells the now successful restaurant owners to keep the passion, and to keep the focus they've now discovered. In other words, don't end up back where you started.

UX is of course the same. You can fix what's wrong with a business today, but given the shifting nature of customers/audiences/technology/content/prices/expectations and a dozen other factors, staying the same means planning for failure. You need to keep measuring that you are on target, keep listening to your audience and keep improving what you do.

Kitchen Nightmares is an interesting study in why UX is important. It's also put me off carveries for life, but that's a different story.

 

 

Customer Experience Fail: The Grommit

I’ve just had a perfect example of a great ‘bait and lure’ process, a complete and utter Customer Experience (CX) fail.

A week or two ago I came across an ad for the Grommit, a website selling cool gadgets, gizmo’s and designer stuff – nothing I need, just stuff you want anyway because it’s cool. I liked the ad, I liked the site after a quick glance, so I signed up to the newsletter. I signed up using my business email address, gary.bunker@thefore.com.au.

Today I got a reminder from them, nicely worded, telling me that I may have missed the fact that they’d offered me $10 off my first purchase, an offer that was about to expire. It was a well structured piece of bait, luring me to come back and buy something – and like a good Trout, I took the bait. Back to the site I duly swam, and eyed up the goodies until I saw something that took my fancy – after perhaps 30 minutes or so of reviewing and looking through products for something I’d really like.

I added it to the cart, added in the discount voucher, and then saw the shipping calculator embedded in the cart. This let me choose my country of occupancy and my postcode, and calculate the shipping. Now that’s key at this point; some sites charge a large amount for shipping to Australia, unfairly so sometimes, so knowing what you are paying can kill the sale before it gets under way.

 

The Cart allowed me to select Australia as the shipping location

I duly entered the info and pressed the button, but nothing happened. Tried again, same result. Ookay, perhaps the first failure point, but not too bad. So I hit the Checkout button to continue, knowing I’d see shipping cost soon enough.

Now remember that I’ve already visited the site, been caught in the net, and signed up to the newsletter. The site should know me, it should know I landed from my custom email, it knows I’ve entered a custom code, and it knows I’m shipping to a certain postcode in Australia.

But despite knowing all of that, it asks me to register. First name, Last name, email address. Despite having entered this info once already, I’m back to having to enter it again. Great.

still need to know that shipping amount, and it’s only three fields, so I enter it again – again, using my Australian email address – although in a small sign of what was to come, the site helpfully asks if I meant ‘gary.bunker@thefore.com’, instead of ‘.com.au’…

I hit the button to register those details, and now I see the Shipping details. Oh, yes, I have to enter my name, again! Wahoo!!! Third time’s the charm, in goes my name, and my shipping address. The site helpfully lets me choose my country, postcode and address, before I move on to shipping method.

It’s at this point that the hook sinks in and I’m yanked out of my comfortable shopping experience. I’m told, helpfully and in glaring bold red error text, that “The shipping module is not available for the selected delivery country“.

 

Unfortunately, bad news was waiting for the Trout…

Just to put that failure into context, let’s look at this fully:

  1. The ad for the Grommit appeared on a localised Australian site.
  2. The site accepted my Australian email address for newsletter signup – it knew then that I was within Australia
  3. The site listed Australia in the shipping module within the cart – it allowed me to select Australia, and knew I had selected it.
  4. On the following registration step the site again knew that I was in Australia, with another entry of my Australian email address.
  5. The site knew on the Shipping address page that I wanted this shipped to Australia, and supported the Australian address in the fields it provided.
  6. The site asked me to register for the newsletter, failed to remember that or use it during the cart, failed to use it during registration, asked for my email address three times overall, and my name twice.

You rarely get such a nice parceled example of pure, poor Customer Experience. It’s hard to describe that feeling of frustration that hit me when I saw the message – there was frustration for sure, having wasted time reviewing the site, selecting a product, discounting others, skipping back and forth between emails and carts, entering details repeatedly, committing to a sale process, and then being rejected at the last minute. But there is also that deep feeling of being betrayed, of being promised something that was whisked away at the last moment in an attempt to hook you. That beautiful lure that pierced the lip of my customer experience and then left me high and dry, whilst the site makes off with my registration details.

Sure, the site did provide me with a link to a third party that may be able to deliver it for me or set up a fake US forwarding address, but that’s not the point.

This fish swam away as fast as he could. Just warning the rest of you fishies….

Oh Kogan, where art thou?

I had a perfect example this month of how horribly wrong the e-commerce experience can be – and I had Kogan to thank for it. It was a timely reminder, for me; I had begun to think that online retailers had learned their lesson and (mostly) picked up their game. Perhaps not.

It all started with the off-the-cuff decision to purchase a smart watch. I did a little research, I decided to investigate the Sony Smartwatch 2, and I searched out some online prices. To be honest I was hoping for a local store (so that I could look at the product, touch it, test the heft and ensure it was worth trying out), but that was not to be. My best options appeared to be two unknown Australian e-commerce stores, Kogan (who I knew and had purchased from before) and Mobicity (who I also knew of and had purchased from before).

Prices were relatively similar once shipping was accounted for, but I had one key concern – I wanted the watch soon. I knew Mobicity shipped from overseas, and so my concern was it would potentially take 1-2 weeks to receive the item – whereas Kogan is a local Australian store, as far as I was aware. They had the item in stock, it was marked as ‘In Stock, ships in 3-7 days’, and since they were local I was hoping I’d receive it perhaps within a week. Since I was hoping to show it off and take it with me to some related events, I placed the order. I also ordered another unrelated item. This was placed on the 21st of January.

The unrelated item was shortly dispatched and received, all well. But one week later, the 7 last day that I’d been informed the item might ship by, no item or notice so I emailed Kogan. I explained the situation and asked what was going on. The response, received mid morning on January 28th, was in essence:

“Your order has been processed for dispatch. We are currently awaiting tracking information from the courier, and apologise for the slight delay.”

This email was polite, and quite clear in the intended message – the watch would be sent soon, perhaps even momentarily. So I thanked them for their prompt response, and waited.

But by the end of day on the 29th, there had been no dispatch email received. That was nearly 2 days since the order had started being processed for dispatch, 2 days since the courier had started sending the tracking information. Hmm. So I contacted Kogan again, and asked “just checking, I still haven’t received the dispatch email – where is this sitting currently?

Again, to their credit, the response was pretty fast. A Kogan representative contacted me to say:

“…your order for the Sony SmartWatch 2 has been processed and we are just awaiting the shipping confirmation from our warehouses.”

The main difference here was that the apology was now a sincere apology. And again, despite having to wait, and despite now missing the event I’d desperately wanted the watch for, my overall feeling was one of frustration more than anger. Kogan were responding well and fast, and were being quite polite – but the information about the delay, and the delay itself, were starting to gripe. Surely it couldn’t take this long to process an order? Just what was going on???

But later that day I received an automated response, and it held some worrying information:

“…your order has been processed for dispatch at one of our international facilities and we expect to confirm the shipment shortly. You can expect to receive your courier tracking information by email within 3 – 7 days. Kogan staff won’t have access to tracking information before you do, so the best thing to do to keep track of your delivery is to check your inbox for tracking details (and double check your spam folder). Delivery usually takes 3-5 business days from dispatch.””

A little quick maths took place, and I calculated that at best I might receive my order on Feb 7th (a date which has obviously come and gone) and at worst, even without any further delays, on Feb 17th. That meant that at best I would experience a delivery time of 17 days, at worst 27 days – when the clear expectation of a 1 week delivery had been set upfront. And bear in mind too that at no point had Kogan explained what had gone wrong, or had informed me of any delay (except to apologise when I inquired).

Also, note that this was the first time the words ‘International facilities’ had been used. It explained some of what was going on, but it also confirmed that I had been misled – wherever the item was, it certainly wasn’t on the same continent as me.

So the next day (Jan 30th) I wrote a complaint email, explaining the maths and my frustration with their communication skills. I explained that the main reason I’d selected Kogan was that they’d promised the item was in stock, had clearly indicated delivery within a week, and – since they were a local company – I had every reason to believe I’d receive my item faster than an overseas competitor.  I wasn’t rude, but I clearly let them know I was not happy.

On January 31st I received a response, which said,  you guessed it, your order is being processed for dispatch and is ready to leave the warehouse at any moment. Not only was it the same song I’d been hearing all along, but also apparently my order had gone backwards. Where the previous day my order had been ‘processed for dispatch’ (past tense), now it was back in the ‘being processed’ stage. Great.

By Feb 4th, two weeks after the order had been placed, with no communication explaining the delay, with several emails simply repeating the same line, I was beginning to lose my head. So I let off some steam with a little creative writing:

Hi Silvi,

you know, this is the third email now where the order has been ‘ready to be dispatched shortly’, in this case ‘ready to leave the warehouse at any moment’. And yet, mysteriously, 4 days later – well, okay, let’s say 2, since it was over a weekend, but that’s STILL 2 business days – the order has STILL failed to leave the warehouse. Good job I didn’t sit watching the clock, huh?

Just how big is this warehouse? Do your pickers disappear in there with a tent and a week’s-worth of supplies every time someone orders a TV, leaving crumb-trails to find their way back out – and if so, how many do you lose? Or do they have to fight tigers and bears and rabid bargain hunters to get the goods – I’m imagining them running down a hill, like Indiana Jones, clutching my order under one arm whilst they scream for a bi-plane. Brave souls, they are. Perhaps it’s more like ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’, with electrical devices being chased in circles by despairing staff (and damn if a fast-moving smart-watch would be a right bugger to track down in that!)

Or is it like Narnia; you send someone for an order and they turn up a week later rambling about living like a King on the Badger’s magical throne, complete with sword and chastity belt.

Maybe there’s a time-warp thing happening, some portal appearing above Kogan-HQ that slows the passage of time in a very localized fashion. Professor Hawking could get another book out of that.

Or, perhaps, is this a case of true product love? Was my item always in stock and always just a few moments from a correctly addressed envelope, the real problem being that the staff just can’t bear to part with it? Are they polishing it lovingly somewhere, whispering sweet nothing’s into it’s ear, as I wait longingly for it’s arrival?

Because if it’s not any of those, and it’s not that desperate lack of communication OR the whole ‘lying to your customers’ thing you wisely decided not to deny, then I’m coming up empty.

Your help with my understanding of the laws of physics as they pertain to time and space as they relate specifically to Kogan HQ would be greatly appreciated here,

Thanks in advance,

Gary

 

Later that day Kogan responded, and the apology was there – as it had been all along. What was not there, was any explanation of what the delay had been, or how long it might continue. This time there wasn’t even a repeat of the same line. There was simply a repeat of the fact that I’d receive more information once the item was sent.

So I responded, sans sarcasm, and asked what was truly going on here. I explained that if Kogan couldn’t confirm the item for delivery for me, by a given date, then I wanted to cancel the order. I also told them that I was more than happy to accept a delay – it was being lied to that I couldn’t stand.

It seemed to have some form of effect, for later that same day (Feb 4th) I received another email stating “We are expecting your order to dispatch in the next 48 hours”. Progress, at last!

Unfortunately, it was not to be. 49.5 hour later, and still with no sign of an item or even a dispatch email, I contacted Kogan again and admitted defeat. It was not to be, no Smartwatch for me – Kogan please cancel my order.

And here, dear reader, the story would end. Except, of course, it doesn’t.

For the response to that email, when it arrived, felt like falling even further down the rabbit hole:

“We have sent a request to our warehouse to halt the dispatch of your order. As your order is already being processed, this may not be possible. Should this cancellation be confirmed as successful, you will receive an email with further options.”

So, not only did it look like I might never receive the item I purchased, but it also looked like I might just as equally never receive the refund. Or if I did, would I now be in for weeks and weeks of delay?

It’s now Feb 8th, and I’ve seen no sign of a dispatch order, a cancellation note or any further communication from Kogan. Who knows where things stand, or what might happen next –  but nearly three weeks after placing my order, the journey has certainly been a painful one.

I don’t know the true story of what happened with this order, and to some degree it really doesn’t matter. I am a customer, and Kogan is a business serving a customer. Honesty comes first, and unfortunately, as a customer, I have to say that was missing. The perceptionpresented on the site was one of a local company with a local product that was in-stock. There was a clear expectation of relatively quick delivery from a well-trusted and known name. The truth, or at least as much of it as I can guess at, seems to be quite different. Whilst Kogan may be a local company, it looks very much like they were selling a product that was somewhere else in the world at the time, and quite possibly out of stock or of unknown stock status.

But perhaps that’s unfair, and Kogan were the victims of some other event. Maybe stock was initially available but mistakenly sent elsewhere, or stolen. Maybe a cargo ship went down.

But whatever the event, Kogan had a choice; be honest about it, and tell the customer. Or just keep on saying ‘Soon’ and hope the poor sucker will be happy with that.

Unfortunately, this sucker wasn’t. I may not get my watch, and I may have to wait a long time for my refund, but in the end it is Kogan who has lost. I regularly purchase gifts and technology online, and that custom will never land with Kogan after this. Already a fair number of people I’ve spoken to have changed their plans accordingly; one bad experience kills more than a single customer relationship.

Lost stock and mistakes in ordering happen, they can be expensive and frustrating. But honesty and good customer communication come free, and they go a long way towards fixing all that up. Shame Kogan didn’t see that.

Event Cinemas – shame on you!!!

There’s nothing like poor user experience to really wind me up – especially when I encounter it as a customer, and feel the full force of stupid design / poor performance slapping me in the face. This week, it’s the turn of Event Cinemas.

A few weeks back I received a newsletter from Event, offering tickets at $7 if you pre-purchased. You could then use them during February and March. Being a regular popcorn muncher at the local Greater Union, I bought a few.

This week I tried to use the tickets to book into a movie with the kids – and got slapped in the face with some poor usability.

Everything proceeded with my purchase pretty well, until I reached the critical payment stage. I had two pre-purchased tickets (with codes that needed entering), one free ticket I’d had stacked up for a while, and had to buy the forth one. But when I reached the payment stage, the site inexplicably asked me to enter 112 pre-pay ticket codes – and refused to let me proceed unless I entered them all. Only having two codes, that was a bit of a problem.

Even worse, when I tried again – reasoning that the problem was either the browser or the session – the seats I’d chosen were all blocked out, and I couldn’t choose them again. I had to wait ten minutes, and try again.

On the third attempt I finally realised that neither Chrome nor Firefox was going to get me across the line, and there was a serious problem. By this point though there was only an hour or two until the movie, and others coming with us had already purchased their tickets. It wasn’t looking good.

I needed help.

And of course, like all terrible web user experiences, help was anything but close at hand.

There’s a Help section – which is good – but no obvious links to get help now, which is bad.

There’s a Website category for help – which is good – but it has zero topics in it, which is bad.

I can find out about refunds – which is good – but not about how to get help actually buying tickets, which is bad.

There’s a Contact us link – which is good – but it’s buried at the bottom of the page, in the same font as standard text, with no visibility, and it leads only to a bog-standard email form, from which you would reasonably expect a response within two to three days, which is very, very, VERY bad.

In the end I figured it out. I took a punt that trying to use the two pre-purchase tickets at the same time as trying to buy another was throwing the system a curve ball, even though it patently said this was okay. I bought the four tickets in two separate chunks, and everything worked well. It cost me a couple of hours of messing around, but eventually I got there fine.

I can excuse bugs. Even the best designed websites and the most frequently tested systems can go wrong, especially in strange conditions. I can even excuse a lack of customer awareness; I’ve spent, at a conservative estimate, well over $600 at this local cinema in the past year – hey, five kids and two adults who occasionally get time off can consume a fair amount of Hollywood, let me tell you. I’d love it if the site recognised that, and tried in some way to make me feel my problems were slightly more important to them than a first time visitor – but I can live with the fact that rarely happens online.

What I can’t forgive is a web service that fails to deliver a core function it is clearly designed for, and then makes it impossible to get help or recover in any way. Error text and 112 requests for codes I didn’t have is not exactly a good impression to leave customers with.

Shame on you, Event Cinemas, shame on you….

NCSoft, Guild Wars and poor user experience

It always amazes me how businesses on the web can make such basic mistakes.

Take a store, an old-fashioned shop selling products – let’s say, a computer game shop. It has nice display setups with all the latest games on display, lots of choices, and prices shown on each. You can make your choice, take your pick and pay for it.

If, by any chance, you have a problem or need to ask a question, there’s a member of staff there somewhere. If you’re lucky they’re right there, if you’re not then it might take you a few moments to hunt one down – but either way, you can find out what you need and make your choice, and take your game home within minutes.

This week I’ve been trying to purchase a copy of a game called Guild Wars, from the NCSoft website. I know the game can (in theory) be purchased from stores, but since it’s pretty old it rarely puts in an appearance, so I decided to go straight to the people who make it and buy it from them.

A quick web hunt found their site, and allowed me to get started. There was a shop, which quickly showed me the game I wanted. I could click Buy, and I was away. I had to create an account – which always annoys the hell out of me – but apart from that, I reached the pay point within minutes.

That’s the point where it went wrong.
I entered my credit card details, the site thought for a moment or two, then told me that it couldn’t complete my purchase at this time. Specifically, it said “We’re sorry, but we are unable to accept your order at this time. Please try again later or tomorrow. If you continue to have problems, you may wish to visit one of our retail partners.”

Hmm, I thought. Maybe their website was having some kind of an issue. So, I tried again, only to get the same result. I tried a different card, just in case it was a credit card issue, but again saw the same message. Okay, I reasoned, it must be their site.

So I left it a day, then tried again. Again, the same message. I left it one more day, just in case, and again the same message. Right, so definitely the site going wrong, then.
Part of the problem here was the message. ‘We are unable to accept your order at this time”. What does that mean? Am I trying at the wrong time of day? From the wrong country? With the wrong card?

Finally, I figured I’d contact them and let them know that their site was broken. And here’s where the old fashioned shop wins out every time…
Of course, the site has no link to contact us – only to ‘Support’. Click into the support area, and immediately you see a link telling you how to get in touch with support – which is good. But click on the link, and the first thing it offers you is a link to go back to the previous page. The second thing it tells you is that you need to register to get a support account. The third thing it tells you is that you need to complete an ‘Ask a question’ form – which, when you view it, asks for your username, question, product, department, your NCSoft account, game account (which I don’t yet have) and operating system – all of which are mandatory.

Now, imagine you walk into a store, pick up a product, and go to pay. Only nobody will talk to you or take your money. The staff there completely ignore you, and point rudely to a sign instead. The sign says:

“If you want to buy from our store or talk to our staff, then please complete this application form for an account to become a customer. Then, complete this second application form for an account to be a person-we-will-communicate-with. Then, wait a day or two, and one of our friendly staff will call you back. Maybe”

You’d probably walk straight out the door. Which is (in a virtual sense at least) exactly what I had to do, too. Well done, NCSoft!

Virgin Mobile doesn't want my money...

UPDATE: Since writing this blog and posting about it on Twitter, Virgin Mobile have kindly contacted me and resolved my problem. Apparently, they do want my money after all..!Recently I made a change of carrier, switching from Virgin Mobile to Telstra.

There were various reasons for this, ranging from poor reception at my house to some previous billing issues and poor customer support, although to be fair to Virgin Mobile the main reason was getting hold of a new HTC Desire from the local Telstra shop. Part of the switch involved paying my last bill and a couple of hundred extra dollars to close out my Virgin Mobile account.

Everything has gone relatively smoothly, but I've hit a small snag; it appears that Virgin Mobile doesn't want my money. Not only that, apparently they don't want to know about it, either...

It started just after I bought the Desire. I had just received a bill from Virgin, and thanks to their new 'we'll charge you more for a paper bill' policy it arrived online. So a few days after I'd switched I logged onto to the VM site, to pay that bill. When I tried to log in (using my pin and phone number) it rejected me, saying that these details were incorrect. I tried again, but quickly realised what had happened - since I'd ported my number to Telstra and in effect closed my account, I no longer had an account to log in to. Ah.

But I figured this wouldn't go on for long - now that the account was closed, Virgin would realise this and send me a final bill.

It arrived this morning. And, you guessed it, it's a virtual bill - which I can access, as soon as I go online and log into my account. Which, as you probably recall, I no longer have.

Hmm.

I tried again, just in case they'd reactivated the login to let me see the bill, but got the same result. Nope, I no longer exist. Okay. So, I thought maybe I'd respond to the email, and tell support I couldn't log in to SEE the bill, let alone pay it. But, as you'll probably have guessed if you've been through anything similar, it was a classic 'no-reply' address.

With the mission impossible theme now running through my head I returned to the site, and selected the support option. Did I already have an account, it asked? Yes, I said. Okay, the site replies, log in. Great. So I tried saying no. It offered to let me 'create one' - not exactly the help I needed.

Giving up, I tried the contact us option. Sure enough there's an email link - which once again asks me to log into my non-existent account to email support about the non-existent bill I'd not like to pay.

As far as Virgin is concerned, I don't exist - and they have no interest in letting me pay the bill that my non-existent self has to pay. Apparently.

There's a 1300 number to ring, so I'll give that a shot - but on past experience, I'm foreseeing around an hour of waiting and a big headache.

If only these companies realised how difficult they are making it on their customers to actually hand over the cash they want to pay..!!!

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.

Thorntons Chocolates - not so sweet

I've been a member of the Thorntons Chocolates website for many years now. It's a UK based site, and I joined whilst living there - but since I've moved back to Australia, I've found it incredibly useful for sending presents to family members still there. This week though, I've requested that my account be cancelled, and it's all down to terrible usability.

I receive the odd special offer from Thorntons, but as Christmas has gotten closer the number of emails I receive from them has started to increase. Instead of one a month or so, it now seems as if every couple of days a new email appears. That made me think carefully about how often I've ordered from specials, and in turn that made me realise that in fact I never have. My usage profile is pretty simple; on my mums or sisters birthday I order chocs and send them, or alternatively order flowers from another site. Specials have no effect on me.

Therefore I decided to unsubscribe. And this is where it all went wrong...

As a user, there is nothing I love more than a simple unsubscribe process. Click here to unsubscribe, confirm your address, and wham that's done. It shows respect for the user.

Equally, there is nothing more frustrating than the opposite. Thorntons has a link to unsubscribe in their email, but when you follow it you simply end up at the front door of their website. Great.

So, I log in. Now I'm being forced to trawl through the site and try and figure out how to unsubscribe. Wonderful. I start by going to my account, and straight away I see an opt in question. It reads:

"If you do not wish to receive future e-mail communications about special offers and products from Thorntons please untick this box"

So do I tick it, or untick it? Reading it twice I figured unticking was the right thing to do. Only problem was, it was already unticked...! Sooo, what next?

There were no other options relating to email, but eventually I spotted a list of other menu options for my Account area. I could change my address, change my payment method, review and set alerts for birthdays, change my pasword - but absolutely nothing relating to email offers.

By now I'm getting a little steamed. When I received the email I was a happy customer who simply wanted to stop receiving special offer emails all the time, but by now I'm seriously looking to kill my account entirely. Only there's no option for that, either...

In final desperation I go back to the original email to see if maybe I clicked the wrong link. Nope. However, I do spot another link relating to unsubscribing. It reads:

"or click here to email us. (This may take up to 14 days)"

So, I can email them and then wait two weeks for a response. that's the power of the Internet working for you... Needless to say, I did email and this time I definitely asked for my account to be removed.

As a (hopefully now former) customer of Thorntons, this entire process left me feeling extremely under-valued. I was left with no choice but to think that Thorntons didn't care what I wanted, it only wanted it to make it as difficult as humanly possible for me to stop receiving their spam.

I'd love to think that Thorntons would realise how easily this loss could have been avoided - but then again, I'd love to believe in Santa, too.

*UPDATE: Six days later I still haven't received any form of response, and I've received two more unwanted emails. Thanks Thorntons...

Website usability: Hyundai

Recently, I've had the pleasure (or not) of shopping for a new car. Our family seems to be forever growing larger, and the hassle of travelling everywhere in two vehicles is finally starting to wear a little too much. I'm a big believer in reviews, so I checked out several and armed with those and a good idea of my budget, we quickly settled on the right car for us - the Hyundai iMax. This isn't a review of that vehicle, but instead a moan about that age old problem of 'heavy websites'.

Whilst we had a good idea of the vehicle we wanted, the colour was something we still had to agree on - so we hit www.hyundai.com.au. We did this in the evening, on a couch, on a relatively small laptop with a relatively slow wireless connection.

First problem; we saw the home page, we saw a large slow-loading Flash movie, and - well, not much else. We had to wait. And wait.

And wait....

Finally, 'Rodger' appears and starts telling us he's our guide to finding the right vehicle for us. He gets a few words out, but then stutters to a stop. And we wait...

Now, I (and MANY other people, from my testing experience) absolutely detest movies that load up and play without my choice or control - especially when I can't easily turn them off. Fortunately for us, Rodger had a minuscule - and I mean minuscule - 'off' switch, top right of the screen. Once we saw it he stopped stuttering and explaining the menu to us - but unfortunately didn't stop pointing at the menu's and explaining. The off controlled the volume, but not the movie. Therefore the page continued to slowly load and choke the laptop, whilst we struggle to see where to start. Great.

I won't go through the entire site experience, to be honest it wasn't horrendous but like the home page the rest of the site is heavy with visuals, animation and 'pomp'. It was in effect a very slow and painful process, not helped by the fact that the one decision we needed to make (colour) couldn't be made as the colour name we were given by a salesman doesn't appear.

Now I know I'm not the same as every other customer out there, but for me the rich, vibrant, deeply emersive experience I want is in the showroom, where I can touch and smell the car. On the website I want facts, pictures yes, and maybe even movies - but at my choice. I don't want long boring useless movies frustrating me before I get anywhere near the car page I want, and I definitely don't want Rodger explaining that I need to click on 'Latest offers' if I want to see what offers are available - I'm pretty sure I could have worked that bit out for myself.

For my money this is a clear case of getting the experience online completely wrong, based purely on brand and market research.

Unless of course I'm nothing like the average Hyundai purchaser...

When fun becomes a pain

I'm pretty sure there is an algorithm you could use to calculate how much free time I get. Something along the lines of 'F=T/(K*N)', where fun (F) is a function of time not at work or cleaning (T) divided by the number of kids (K) times their relative naughtiness (N). Whatever the true calculation is, that normally works out somewhere close to zero. But when my partner and I do finally get some time to ourselves, a favourite pastime of ours is to head off to the movies.

Now where we live there are three choices; a small independent cinema (which offers cheap seats, cheap popcorn but movies a touch behind the times), and a Hoyts and a Greater Union, both large multiplexes. Generally my experience starts on the web, as we look up what's on and when it's starting before making our choice of where to head. I rarely buy online, as I refuse to pay extra for the privilege.

Both the independent cinema and the Greater Union site offer simple and effective approaches. You can bookmark the page, and when you bring it up they list the movies that are on and the start times, with links to the previews/trailers for each. But Hoyts has taken a very different approach.

Recently, Hoyts revamped their site, and I was glad to see them do this. Their old site was painful to use, and refused to allow you to bookmark the cinema you wanted, since all pages used the same base URL - no matter what page you bookmarked, you always ended up at the home page when you came back. That meant selecting the state, then the theatre, then waiting to see what came up.

When the new site reappeared the same crime appeared to have been committed - as well as the more heinous crime of failing to support Firefox, which refused to load dropdown menus crucial to navigation, at least on my PC. Those faults do seem to have been corrected more recently though.

Let me talk you through the experience I had today, remembering that my simple task was to pick a movie that I could take my fiance to this evening, in the brief three hours of tranquility we will hopefully be allowed to enjoy.

First I click on my bookmark, and just as before, I arrive at the Hoyts home page. The home page offers me two core options - watch a trailer, or buy tickets. Now I don't necessarily want to do either, I'm trying to find out what's on and when, but since those are my primary options I choose Buy, since I rationalise this is the closest to my task.

Step 1 is to choose the cinema, so I click, and a dropdown appears (white against a white banner, although the options can be read okay). I choose NSW and another dropdown appears, with a long scroll-able list of cinemas - mine, as it happens, is right at the end. I scroll down and click it.

Next, it asks me to choose the movie, from another dropdown.

Now the problem I have is I don't know when any of them start. We'll be throwing our precious crew into the arms of grandma and burning rubber in the opposite direction around 6.30, which means anything starting before 7 is a rush, and anything starting after 7.30 will make it difficult to get back in time - so start time is crucial.

So showing me the list of movies with no start time doesn't overly help. I select a movie, but the start time is too early. I select another, and the start time is again too early. Again, with the same result.

By now I'm figuring this can't be the way to do this, especially since I entered the 'Buy' task, so I go back to the home page and take another look - there is no 'Home' option readily available, but luckily I guess that the logo will take me there.

At the top of the page, in a nice visible button (mid grey on light grey against mid grey background) is the word Cinemas, which I'd missed first visit, so I click. It's yet another dropdown menu, but cinema search is the first option, so I click again. Yet another dropdown, and I choose my state for the second time (why can't it remember???) and then see a long list of cinemas listed down the page - with mine again at the end. Several scrolls later I find it, with two buttons - More info, or Buy tickets.

Now since I've already found the Buy route isn't giving me what I want, I click on More info. Unfortunately it gives me exactly what I'd feared - a map of the cinema location, contact details and other descriptions of facilities - but no list of movies currently showing. That means there's zero point bookmarking this page.

I go back, and expecting to see exactly the same thing as before, click on the Buy tickets option. This takes me to a Session times page, which bizarrely asks me to select the state yet again, and then the cinema. I almost do, before I realise that actually the cinema is already selected, although this isn't shown in either controls. Finally though, I am seeing a list of the movies showing here on the page, rather than in a dropdown. That's the good news.

The bad news is, they still don't show start times....

So yet again it's a case of clicking on each movie, and waiting while the page reloads to see what time it is on. Eight clicks and eight page refreshes later, and I have the movie we're going to see.

Now, I know that as a usability guy, I have a tendency to gripe over design flaws more than the average customer, but still this experience is far from what I'd call ideal - Both competitors allow me to bookmark the cinema page and see all start times on a single page, with useful links to content from there. Hoyts on the other hand makes me load a new page for every movie, which is painful at best.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes I did write to them (nicely) and tell them what I'd found during my experience on the site - not today, but before Christmas when the new site first appeared.

I'm still waiting for my response....