Category Archives: Broken UX

How overly “intelligent” software can embarrass you

Yesterday I got an email telling me that I was invited to an acquaintance's birthday party, together with some 30-odd people, most of which I didn't know. The email contained an .ics invitation as an attachment, one of these little files created by, for example, MS Outlook or Apple iCal. The .ics file carries information on a calendar entry in it, like time, location, sender, attendees etc.

I wanted to add the event to my Apple iCal calender, so I clicked on its underlined name. The event got added alright, but to the wrong calendar – one of my deprecated work calendars. So I deleted the entry from the calendar and tried something different: This time I dragged the .ics file from the Apple Mail email body right onto my private calendar in iCal. The event appeared in the right color, indicating that it had been added to the correct calendar, but … I noticed some interesting activity in my Apple Mail client! iCal had started to send out updated invitations to all the original party invitees – in my name! I quickly deleted the event from my calendar, only to be asked if I wanted to send out some explanation to the invitees. Confirmed that (I was a bit nervous by that time) and had to close ~30 draft emails; nevertheless, my email client kept sending out message after message until I finally disconnected the WiFi network to make it stop. By that time, at least 16 invitations and updated invitations had been sent out.

The shame of it! I had spammed a number of people, most of which I didn't even know, with updates to a party I had only indirectly been invited to, and that happened to me, who I consider to be sufficiently tech-savvy, with one my favorite tools, Apple Mail, on my favorite OS, Mac OS X 10.5. I sent out an apologizing email to the party organizer and later today another one to all the invitees. My apps' misbehavior had caused shame for me and irritation in my social network, and in the end the blame would land squarely on me.

Someone at Apple obviously had tried to make something super-simple but somehow got it wrong. Why am I made the owner of an event when I drag it to my calendar, and how can my email app start sending out messages without asking me first? This reminds me too strongly of Plaxo, a contact management tool that makes it super-easy to stay up-to-date with your contacts' address data, because it syncs all the changes in the background, but that can also result in your sending out messages to all the entries in your address book. The infamous AOL client had a similar functionality that I invoked at least once accidentally while working at AOL.

Brings to mind Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (1942), and right at number one, they read:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Please, keep this in mind when designing applications – protect people from overly clever actions of applications, and think about possible negative consequences of your apps' behavior.

Fun with Batteries

My gadgets seem to have formed a kind of energy conspiracy: I’m at the “Mensch und Computer” conference in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and not only does my indisposable indispensable PowerBook’s battery not last no more than 75 minutes (if I’m lucky). I brought three sets of rechargable batteries for my digital camera, I even tested them at home ? and now all six of them are flat. I haven’t been able to take a single photograph with the camera and had to use my mobile phone’s low-res camera instead. I’m happy though that my Treo’s battery still agrees to work quite nicely, and my iPod’s ok too. (I keep my fingers crossed ? got a longish train travel home tomorrow.) I hope some future developments will help us get rid of nuisances like empty batteries ?

Broken UX^2: Microsoft announces security product OneCare

As some of you might know, I’m not too fond of Microsoft products or their business demeanor. So maybe please excuse my little rant on the Redmond company ? It’s funny how they’ve been getting away with shipping product after product that features bugs, usability glitches, and plain oversights. But well, there’s the old IT saying that nobody gets fired for recommending Microsoft products.

What I don’t like about Microsoft either is their business ethics ? or lack thereof. It’s been a clever move to first not really doing anything against people pirating copies of the Windows installation CDs and to wait until nearly everybody’s computer ran on one or the other flavor of Windows and then start bringing in the crop through their challenge-and-response mechanism. All of a sudden, now that you had all the Windows-compatible infrastructure in place, you were forced to go and buy a lincense for the OS. Basically, it’s like making someone take a drug by giving some away and then, once they’re addicted, to take outrageous prices. (I’m not advocating pricacy here?I’ve got licences for all my software on all my computers, thank you very much?but for lots of people, at least here in Germany, software is something you get from your neighbor and you definitely don’t need to pay for.)
The latest move in this bad game is the introduction of Microsoft OneCare. As c|net reported on May 30,

OneCare combines antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software with backup features and several tune-up tools for Windows PCs. The product went on sale in the U.S. online and in stores Wednesday. Microsoft said it plans to expand to international markets in the coming 12 months.

? snip ?

OneCare will cost $49.95 a year for use on up to three PCs in a home, a competitive price compared with rival products from traditional security vendors including Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro. Many retailers plan to offer rebates and other types of promotions that will discount OneCare, Microsoft said in a statement.

? snip ?

Industry analysts have said that businesses may be hard-pressed to buy security products from Microsoft?maker of the software that needs protection. On the consumer front, however, Microsoft brings a well-established and largely trusted brand into the market, these analysts have added.

? snip ?

OneCare is aimed at consumers. Microsoft is also eyeing the enterprise security market. It is working on a new Client Protection product to defend business desktops, laptops and file servers against malicious code attacks. A public beta of Client Protection is slated for release in the third quarter.

I mean, come on people! This is outrageous! Isn’t Microsoft the company that’s responsible for the need for security protection in the first place? Is it not them who ship a so-called OS that’s one big security problem in itself? Are they not getting paid for an actually defunct product? And now they’re charging customers to protect themselves from problems that wouldn’t have arisen if Microsoft had done their job properly in the first place? This should be a free update ? just a security fix, together with a big apology to all the customers out there in daily fear of data loss and virus infection.

I don’t expect companies to give business ethics the highest priority. But this is about how you treat your customers. This is about respect and credibility. It’s also a history about greed and impertinence on behalf of a company that’s making so much money it can’t actually handle it.

This is such a broken UX, it’s got the special tagline “Broken UX^2”.

Broken UX – wap front-end

Whenever I’m booking a hotel for travel within Germany or abroad, one of my first destinations is – a hotel reservation website. It gives you real-time info on hotel availibility, sometimes special rates, great photos, contact information, maps and routes. Its web front-end is easy to use, and they’ve got very friendly staff on the phone as well.

Yesterday I wanted to check whether they had a wap-enabled version of their website as well. I’ve got a Palm Treo 650 smart phone (which I’m very fond of), and I entered the URI into its built-in web browser. I was happy to see the page started to load, but it looked nothing like a wap-optimized page – and it kept loading and loading. Somewhere around 250k, I canceled the download and tried to operate some of the controls on the page. My browser pushed an alert saying not all JavaScript had been downloaded and I should wait for the rest of the page to be there. So I reloaded the page, and another 250k later, the page just stalled.

Maybe I need to add I’m on a 5MB volume plan. Fortunately. Normally, on e.g. a Vodafone plan a 10k WAP/GPRS packet is about 19ct; my 5MB cost 5 Euros a month. If I didn’t have this volume plan, this small exercise alone would have cost me something like 10 Euros (!) – without providing any value.

I don’t give up that fast. Later the day I tried again, even succeeded in initiating a query, but I didn’t get any result (the page stalled twice). That was the point when I, despite all my previous good experiences with, decided to try a competitive site, Their (non-wap-optimized page) loaded faster, provided all the necessary information and helped us book a hotel fast.

Today I sat down and wrote an email to management, decribing what I had experienced. I’m curious what they will answer. I surely hope they’ll reconsider the whole wap frontend. Looks like a major overhaul might be necessary there.

Broken UX – Shopping Experience

I’m opening a new category here – “Broken UX”. It’s supposed to be similar to Mark Hurst’s great website ? describing some opportunities for organizations to just perform better. This first post deals with my (first and ? presumably ? last) shopping experience at
Two weeks ago, I wanted to get a telephone for my parents. It had to be a special made (because of the perculiarities at their house), and it was not easy to find. I missed two or three auctions on eBay, then decided to go and try the standard way and just buy it.

Using one of the (in Germany) very popular least-price search engines, I was happy to find the model at a reasonable price at Quelle is a huge German catalog shopping with a long history and loads of satisfied customers. I had not thought about buying anything there, but then I thought, well, it won’t be much different from the other online shops I know.

The first thing that irritated me was that the least-price search engine feed obviously was out of date: While the product I wanted to buy was listed as available, on it was sold out. So I had to go for the bigger model, higher price and nearly double the money my parents had wanted to spend on a phone. Well, I thought, better this than none. (I must add that I was under a certain time pressure – they were getting DSL, and I had to do the setup the following weekend at their house, so everything had to be there in time. It was Monday evening already.)

I put it into the shopping basked and went through the checkout process. Fairly standard procedure ? enter your name, address, etc. I kept looking for a place to enter the shipping address ? remember, I wanted the thing to be delivered to my parents’ house ? but couldn’t find it. Ok, I thought ? I’ll have to add this later, once the order has been taken.

I submitted the order and instantly got an acknowledgement email, giving me an order number and a customer ID. Interestingly enough, they said (in the email) that they couldn’t give me a final confirmation for my order. But they listed all my customer details, including a delivery address I had not entered (my standard address). So I went back to the website to have a look at the “Meine Quelle” (“my Quelle”) section, expecting to see something like the order status reflected there as well and maybe a possibility to add or change the delivery address. I was astonished to find I had to request a special “Meine Quelle” ID that would be sent to be via snail mail before I could even enter that area. I requested it and (obviously) changed some of my profile data.

I don’t like talking to customer service agents a lot. I mean, most of the time it’s just ok, most of them are rather nice and friendly, but still I prefer doing things like changing my data myself. Anyway, I got on the phone (it was 10:something pm by then) because I really wanted this delivery address to be changed. The lady I talked to was very nice, and she could look into my account, but she couldn’t see my order there. She asked me to please call again the next morning – they would be restarting their computers in an hour, maybe then the order would show up.

On Tuesday I called to learn the order still was not visible in the system. They asked me for my phone number (I seemed to have erased it from my profile) and asked me to call again that evening or the following morning. I then wrote them an email, expressing my surprise at their processes, describing the chain of events so far and asking them to add the delivery address and tell me about the expected delivery date. In case the data still wasn’t in the system, I asked them to tell me so I could maybe set up a second order or something.

The next morning (Wednesday) I called again. (The weekend was approaching rapidly.) The lady again was very nice and first of all asked me what I had ordered ? she couldn’t see anything in the system. Somehow she then said the article would arrive either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. She then proposed I could set up a second order of the same article with express delivery; that would be an extra 10 Euro, but then a delivery on Friday would be assured. I could send back the superfluous (original) article once it arrived, it would only cost me the postage. She added the delivery address for the express delivery, but then realized express delivery was not possible for that article. So I asked her to cancel the additional order again.

The next morning (Thursday) I got an email from Quelle customer service. They said the order was visible now, but they couldn’t give me a delivery date. I responded I had been given Friday to Monday as delivery dates and whether they had different information. They didn’t answer the mail but rather called the next morning, telling me (rather rudely) that they still didn’t have a delivery date but now they had two orders in the system – whether I actually wanted two telephones. That was the point when I decided it wasn’t worth it. I wrote them an email asking them to cancel my order.

They answered they were sorry I wanted to cancel my order but they couldn’t cancel it anymore as it was already being processed. The “My Quelle” order status page told me something like “No information can be given on this specific order ?” (I had been sent the credentials in the meantime). So I thought it couldn’t be helped, and let’s see what came out of it.

On Saturday I went to my parents’ and installed everything, but the telephone didn’t arrive. It did arrive, though, on Tuesday of the following week ? at my place, not my parents’. The accompanying letter was kind, telling me how much they hoped I would be satisfied with my Quelle shopping experience. I sent the parcel back the following day. (Till now, in my “Meine Quelle” payments page, the invoice hasn’t been cancelled – looks like I still owe them.)

To me, this was one of the worst shopping experiences ever. I find it especially hard to understand how a big catalog shopping house like Quelle doesn’t seem to be able to synchronize their systems and give real-time information to their customers. The “Meine Quelle” page features an outrageously bad usability, forcing you to enter article numbers to get an order delivery status and making you make lots of superfluous decisions. And it’s interesting to see they rather send out unwanted (customer-cancelled) parcels and forcing their customers to return those things than adding a final checkpoint to their inhouse delivery chain (how can it be they cannot cancel an order on Thursday when the parcel only arrives on Tuesday?).

I must say I’m extremely dissatisfied with this Quelle experience, and I wonder how they can run a business at all with processes like this. But then, maybe they haven’t made the transition yet from a paper-and-pencil catalog shopping house to an online store. They better did ? soon.

Update: What makes this experience even worse is that seems to just have undertaken a major redesign effort, officially resulting in a much improved user experience.