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He’s Just Not That Into You

Good Design Starts With Checking Your Ego at the Door

My phone bill payment was late. They were threatening to cut off my service for nonpayment. But it wasn’t my fault. Honest.

Here’s the deal. Ages ago, I had set up my phone bill for auto-payment. In return for giving the phone company my banking information, they would automatically collect their fee at the end of every month. I’d get an e-mailed statement of the charges, but I didn’t have to approve the payment, write a check, or really do much of anything. How delightfully modern.

This worked fine for years. Then I get an actual letter in the mail. Assuming it’s just paper spam, I open it more out of curiosity than any feeling of obligation. To my surprise, it’s a nasty-gram chiding me for nonpayment and threatening to cut off my phone service unless I cough up the appropriate sum within a few days.

Three letters come to mind: WTF?

The letter helpfully provided a contact number (no website) for Customer Service. I called. The uncharacteristically helpful and well-informed person on the other end said that the monthly auto-payment program had been canceled a few months ago and they hadn’t received any payment from me since then. “Huh? I didn’t cancel auto-payment,” I declared.

“No, we did.”

Again, WTF?

Monolithic Monopoly & Telegraph had evidently altered the legal terms of its auto-payment program some months ago, and rather than presume that I would agree to the new terms, it required me (and presumably a half-million other customers) to deliberately re-sign up. And how was I notified of this change? “It’s right there on your account page.”

Uh, what account page?

“The account page on the MM&T website,” she says. “You know, the one you see when you log in with your User ID and password. Just click ‘My Account’ and then ‘Billing Options’ and follow the link to ‘Updated Legal Terms,’ check the box that says, ‘I Agree,’ click ‘Save,’ and you’re done.”


I have an account page? That I’m supposed to read? The otherwise charming and reasonable customer service representative related all of this with a cheerful tone, assuming not only that I’m familiar with the MM&T website, but that I must visit it regularly. To my knowledge, I’ve never visited the ‘My Account’ page in my life, or any other part of the company’s website, for that matter. There’s never been any need, and frankly, it doesn’t sound like an exciting or productive use of my time.

She sounded positively insulted that I wasn’t a frequent visitor to “my” page, and gently suggested that perhaps I really ought to better acquaint myself with the financial, legal, and technical agreements into which I had entered with the company. “Have a nice day.”

So here’s my point: This company, like so many others, assumes that they’re important to me. They’re not. Yes, I value my phone service, but I don’t give a rat’s behind about the company providing it. I don’t visit their website, I don’t compulsively check my account status, and I don’t want to hear about fantastic money-saving offers on triple-play packages. The whole reason I signed up for automatic bill paying was so that I’d have less interaction with MM&T, not more.

Which brings us to you, your employer, and your current project. There’s a good chance your current product-development effort includes some online or networking component. Maybe you’re storing data “in the cloud,” offering online configuration, or delivering remote updates. Regardless of the details, it probably requires some sort of subscription, sign-in, or participation from customers. Here’s my advice: Don’t do it.

Part of what made the original iPhone so charming was the simplicity of its user interface. You could pick one up and, with no training at all, figure out how to use 90% of its features. (It helped that early iPhones didn’t have a lot of features.) Contrast that to Windows 8, or Excel, or your latest DVR, and you see the difference. It’s not that customers are dumb, clumsy, or untrainable. It’s that they don’t feel like expending the effort. These products are just not important enough to spend more than a few minutes figuring out. Customers’ attention spans are directly proportional to the product’s importance in their lives, and most products are just not as important as their creators like to think they are.

This tl;dr attitude extends to company websites, downloaded updates, online manuals, and most other modern accouterments of embedded design. I’m not saying that oscilloscopes or CAT scanners should be dumbed-down and made as simple as a smartphone. Only that we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of our customers’ motivations and interest. Just because I spend five years designing a gizmo doesn’t mean my customers will spend more than five minutes thinking about it. Good elevator controls are hard to design, but how much does the typical elevator user think about it? And has anyone ever visited the Otis website looking for tips, updates, or a Facebook link?

User login pages are another perfect example of lopsided expectations. Nearly every consumer gadget now encourages you to visit their website and manage your account. Most just want a simple User ID (usually an e-mail address) and a password. No problem, right? Yet multiply that by the number of little gadgets we own, and consumer fatigue sets in. From the product maker’s point of view, all they’re asking for is an e-mail address and password. “Stop your whining, you stupid customer; we could have asked for a lot more information.” But from the customer’s point of view, it’s the 100th such request in the past month. I don’t $&@!# care enough about the gadgets I own to remember each one’s login credentials. The worst offenders reject my standard throwaway password and insist on a more-secure one. Why they think they’re special, I don’t know, but it further complicates an already annoying experience. If you want to “deliver a better user experience” (a phrase they all seem to borrow), you can start by not trying so hard to deliver a better user experience.

Large companies with well-established marketing departments can lose sight of their customers’ perspective. When you’re surrounded by your own product every day and submerged in company minutiae, it’s easy to forget that “normal people” (i.e., your customers) don’t know as much as you do, nor do they care. They can’t recite the differences between the Gizmo 2000 Model DCM356T and the DCT256M. What’s obvious to you is likely irrelevant to them. They probably aren’t even aware that both products exist. Similarly, such inwardly focused marketing efforts lead to the kind of thinking that trapped MM&T. “Well of course our customers check in with us online. We’re a multibillion-dollar business. We’re huge! And that makes us important to our customers.” The results, as we saw, were late payments and overtime hours for the beleaguered customer-support staff.

When we design a new product, the best-case scenario is that our customers get so excited they shout, “Shut up and take my money!” But to get there, the lesson product makers should first learn is, “Take my money and shut up!”

5 thoughts on “He’s Just Not That Into You”

  1. My latest infuriation is company websites that require you to provide personal details to download white-papers etc. Not just the first time you visit, but every time. No “Hi – welcome back, Dick.” Just a page saying “Give me your details” and then, if you are lucky, you get to access a pdf. Go away, read it and then realise that there is another document that also provides you with useful stuff. So back you go and there is “Give me your details” again.

  2. Very well written. I especially liked “Monolithic Monopoly & Telegraph” which embodies all the worst aspects of the big companies I do business with. I for one never even create an account page on the vendors’ sites preferring to “push” my payments directly from my bank’s web bill pay. I have gotten burned when the bill originator stopped e-bills and it took me a long time to realize that the letters in the mail were bills that I hadn’t already paid. What the telecom companies also do is add about $3 per month for “paper billing” that I don’t want and never asked for. As for downloading whitepapers, I’ve pretty much stopped doing that because most of them are just thinly disguised advertisements.

  3. Just found a corollary to this: little minor widgets and gadgets that you install that decide to change your search and/or print and/or browser or whatever to them.

    “No, you’re just a little widget. Yes, you can be helpful – that’s why I installed you – but no, I have not recentered my entire computing life around you. Get over yourself.”

    (Inspired by getting a new phone and finding that the downloaded support software for it changed my default printer to some obscure printing feature on the phone, leaving me wondering why nothing was printing properly anymore)

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