Showing your organisational underpants: A case study in failure

So I was having a highly enjoyable time in Brussels at the weekend with some good friends when I experienced a quite catastrophic failure of a service from a major high street bank. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a ranty blog post. I was just so stunned by the immense failure of the service that I felt the need to document it because it is a lovely example of a number of well intentioned decisions that together culminate in a quite unbelievable customer experience.

“Something is wrong with my debit card…”
I wandered down to reception of my hotel on Sunday morning in order to pay for breakfast in the main hall. I found myself light on cash so decided to pay with my debit card. Three failed attempts to pay later I swapped to a credit card which was duly accepted first time. This led me to believe it was a problem with my debit card. However I put it down to a dodgy card machine or dirty card and carried on with my day by jumping onto the Eurostar back to the UK.

At London St Pancras train station I wandered over to buy a tube ticket and again tried to use the debit card. When this transaction was cancelled I became concerned. Having borrowed £10 off my friend for the ticket we hopped on the tube to Paddington.

“Lets call Card Enquiries…”
At Paddington train station I decided to call the Card Enquiries hotline. Im paraphrasing the interaction but basically my conversation with the automated machine went like this:

Automated system: Please provide bank card details
Me: Done
Automated system: Please provide date of birth
Me: Done
Automated system: Please provide 2nd and 8th digits of telephone security number you set up 7 years ago.
Me: um..what?
Automated system: You have 20 seconds to comply…

Before the system got too ED-209 on me, I found myself being transferred to a a very nice human being who started to walk me though a series of further security questions. This in itself did not concern or irritate me as being a bank that holds my money I was welcoming of a high level of security. However, as the reason for my problems became clearer I became more incredulous.

“Its a benefit Mr Fisher”
The nice human on the phone (after the 5 minute security pad down) explained that my debit card had been cancelled because they were upgrading me to a new “Super Duper Card” (ok I admit that its not called that and I shouldn’t work in financial branding but stick with me). The “Super Duper Card” was a perk because of my loyalty to the bank with “lots of cool new features”. The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: That all sounds great but I didn’t ask for this “Super Duper Card” and now I have no money
Nice human from bank: I know you didn’t ask for it Mr Fisher but we did write to you and tell that this was happening
Me: when?
Nice human from bank: January
Me: Come again?

Yes thats right. Five months previously they had written to me to announce the “Super Duper Card” via post. I had had no correspondence since.

Nice human from bank: We posted a letter on January 11th explaining the “Super Duper Card”. Can you not remember?
Me: No I’m afraid I can’t. Im as surprised as you are to be honest (sarcasm gets you no where)
Nice human from bank: Well we have posted your new Super Duper Card to you on the 15th May thats why your other one has been cancelled
Me: I haven’t received any new cards in the post…

So who has my bank card?
By this point I was starting to get concerned. Where was this new mystery bank card? Perhaps a worse question was who has my new bank card?

I hung up on “nice human from bank” and got on my train. On the train I rang my wife and asked her two things:

  1. Was there any unopened letters lying around the house?
  2. Could I borrow some money?

Turns out there were no unopened letters and her interest rates were 7%. The day was getting worse.

I called the card enquiries number again and having dispatched the ED-209 style automated voice service in quick order got through to “Nice human from bank #2”. I started to make more headway into the mystery:

Nice human from bank #2: It turns out Mr Fisher that your new Super Duper Card was posted on the 15th May but because of security restrictions we sent it to your local branch instead of your home.
Me: What security restrictions?
Nice human from bank #2: You changed address in the last three months which means we can’t send any new bank cards…
Me You mean the new bank card I didn’t ask for?
Nice human from bank #2: Yes thats the one. Anyway we can’t send you any bank cards to your home for the first three months.
Me: Was anyone going to tell me that I had a new Super Duper Card waiting at my local branch for the last weeks?
Nice human from bank #2: Um no. Its a fully automated system. I don’t why you haven’t been contacted.

I thanked “Nice human from bank #2” and hung up. I have tried to add some humour to this experience but quite honestly lets think about it in a little more detail.

On reflection…
What a devastatingly bad customer experience.

This colossal muck up occurs across four channels (post, contact centre, online banking and high street store), began five months previously and ultimately impacted the customer with a series of very negative consequences.

What was obviously meant to be a nice thing (a customer upgrade to the Super Duper Card) has been so poorly implemented that the consequences for me (the customer) are as follows:

  • Ive spent almost 30 minutes on the phone getting transferred between places with no resolution;
  • Ive been left in a foreign country with no money;
  • I have to leave work at lunchtime to walk to my local branch to collect my new card that I didn’t order. Incidentally when I got to the branch my telephone number was written on the envelope but no-one had seen fit to ring it.
  • Throughout all of this was the concern of who might have my bank card…

Showing your organisational underpants
I think what surprises me the most is not how bad the experience was but how relaxed I acted! I should have been livid and ranty!

Instead having worked in UX for a while, all I ended up seeing throughout was a logical decision taken by some well meaning individual at the bank during the design phase:

Someone thought it would be nice to give me a Super Duper card with lots of perks.

Someone thought they would write via post to tell me this five months before it actually happens.

Someone thought telephone banking needs a really obscure random number that a customer only uses every 7 years.

Someone thought that having moved house they shouldn’t send me anything to that address for three months

Someone thought they should cancel cards without checking with the customer first.

Everyone didn’t see the bigger picture. The customer paid the price.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.


Nine heuristics for designing cross channel services

Last year myself and two associates completed an extensive piece of work on “Sense Making in Cross Channel Design”. A key theme of this paper was exploring how a customer’s understanding can diminish as they transition between various channels of a service. At the conclusion of the paper we had identified nine useful heuristics, observations or considerations when evaluating or planning a cross channel service.

To start the new year (and to ease me back into the blog after returning from honeymoon), I thought it would be useful to provide a short post that pulls out these nine heuristics.

Interlude: Channel switching and information scent

Before we continue, I feel it is important to highlight the importance of information scent on the degradation of understanding in a service. In our original research paper it became clear just how potentially impairing a channel transition can be to the overall success of a customer in a service (see one of my earlier blog posts). Therefore, several of the heuristics below revolve exclusively around the preservation of information scent across channels i.e. how do we help a customer resume a task that they previously started in another channel in our service.

For a deeper understanding of information scent (or any of the points listed below) then I would read our full paper or refer to either Information Foraging Theory by Pirolli (2007) or Spool et al (2004).

Cross channel design heuristics

So here we are then! Nine heuristics, rules or observations that can be used to support customer understanding and help avoid designing failure states into a cross channel service:

  1. In the digital age, the cost of moving channel is very small. For example, It costs me nothing to shut down a browser when I can’t find what I am looking for. Therefore, if our information layer is weak or ill-informed the likelihood of a customer leaving our service or changing to an alternative channel (or competitor) is high;
  2. When looking for information in a cross-channel user experience, customers are effectively conducting a number of evaluations when moving through and across our channels. They are effectively asking themselves “What is the likelihood that this channel can satisfy my informational needs?” In the event that the answer of that question is “Low” then the customer will either switch channel or leave the service entirely;
  3. Do not under estimate the effect that switching channels can have in reducing or eliminating information scent. Every time a customer changes channel they are effectively resetting the information path and beginning a new information forage;
  4. Do not under estimate the role of time in diminishing information scent for a customer. The length of time between customers switching between channels can range from seconds to days. We must consider the length of time likely to elapse and design strong information scents accordingly;
  5. Clear and immediate proximal cues will need to be provided for the major informational needs on all major entry points for a channel. For example, if your service offers a “my favourites” or “wish list” functionally then ensure it is prominent on all major entry points to the website. These information needs should be identified early in the design process and mapped across channels;
  6. Identify the information needs that need to be carried between channels and provide suitable digital functionality (for example, email links and social sharing) that can carry the information scent for us. The topic of carrying information needs and problems associated with this act are explicitly discussed on this blog here;
  7. Basic consistency in taxonomies is still essential for the reinforcement of a strong information scent across channels. The number of navigational paths that a customer has available to them in any given channel is an important consideration in the success of future information retrieval in alternative channels. How can we aid people in their information retrieval when some channels offer a single path whilst others offer as many as eight or more? In my experience, this point is such a common failing of services that its no wonder their has been a resurgent interest recently in content strategy and classic information architecture (its also one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of responsive web design; from both an information scent as well as an accessibility perspective).
  8. Identify the types of failure states that can result in channel switch in a cross-channel experience as well as the “natural” exit points for a task. For example, an “out of stock” result would immediately halt a customers’ task and necessitate a channel switch just as much as if the customer had successfully found what they were looking for. In such an event , what information can you provide to a customer in transitioning to another channel in your service?;
  9. The digital literacy of your services various audience groups and the relative maturity of some channel interaction patterns could have major impacts in the success of a cross-channel experiences. This last point may just be a factor of time as our industry moves forward and more established interaction patterns are recognised by end users.


Obviously designing services involving multiple channels is a lot more complex than the above nine heuristics. However, over time I have been surprised how often I have seen a failure in a system that can be attributed back to one or more of these points. Use them at the start of a project or half way through, it doesn’t really matter. I consistently find them a useful tool for informing decisions throughout the design process. Happy New Year!

Pirolli, P. (2007). Information Foraging Theory: Adaptive Interaction with Information. Oxford University Press.

Spool, J. M., Perfetti, C., & Brittan, D. (2004). Designing for the scent of information. User Interface Engineering.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

The Trouble with Resumption: Transitions in a modern service ecosystem

“Where was I?” Three little words that all of us have muttered when we return to something that we put on hold. It could have been five minutes or five days but either way we speak them aloud in an effort to refresh our memory. The phrase “Where was I?” is interesting because it leads to a subject that I have been thinking a lot about: transitions.

When I talk about transitions in the context of a modern service I am talking about the movement of a customer across various channels, typically following a period of elapsed time. This movement could include:

  • moving from Channel A (e.g. a website) to Channel B (e.g. a retail store);
  • returning to the same channel that you previously visited (although when considering responsive web design we could be looking at the same website on a different device…).

From discussions and experience, the phrase transition doesn’t seem to do justice to the significant realignment required on the behalf of a customer when shifting channels.

Therefore I have started referring to these channel movements as Macro Transitions to differentiate them from the smaller transitions that we typically design on a day to day basis.

What, Where and Why

Commencement of an activity following a macro transition can cause considerable problems for a customer. Immediately following a channel shift there are three obvious challenges that must be overcome that I like to call the three W’s:

  • “What was I doing?” – The customer must remember what they were thinking about before they stopped;
  • “Where was I?” – The customer must remember the very point where they previously stopped;
  • “Why am I here?” – The customer must place the new channel in the context of their overall goal.

Several others before me have discussed the concept of cross channel understanding (Andrea Remini’s and Luca Rosati’s 2011 classic Pervasive Information Architecture is a must read). However, for the benefits of this post it is a term coined by Joel Grossman in 2006 (in an article for UX Matters) that has resonated with me: “Designing for Bridge Experiences”.

Building bridges: The role of 3rd party applications

The bridge metaphor is apt when considering macro transitions as it perfectly sums up the problem we face as experience designers. We are trying to get a customer to cross a giant chasm in order to continue their journey.

As we have moved further towards cross channel ecosystems, the construction of these metaphorical bridges has been increasingly provided by third party applications and services.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of applications and services whose success is based on their ability to construct a bridge across channels. Some popular candidates here would include Dropbox, Pinterest, Evernote and QR code readers.

Hopefully this small list demonstrates to you the type of applications and services I am talking about. Each of these services or applications have the ability to reduce a customers pain when making a macro transition:

  • Dropbox: I can access files from any device I choose. I no longer have to worry about remembering to leave the house with the right file when i want to work on something;
  • Pinterest: When shopping I can pin something I like to one of my boards so that I do not have to worry about finding the same item again from whatever website I was on. I can access that board from Pinterest on my phone when I am standing in the high street store thus allowing me to continue my purchase journey;
  • Evernote: In a similar fashion to Pinterest, I can create folders for my interests and email things to myself that I can access at a later point from any web browser;
  • QR code readers: If implemented correctly then QR codes have the ability to help a customer jump the chasm from the offline world to some deep place in the online world, for example a specific product page in a large website.

Is there a problem?

So whats the problem you might say? As our society has embraced digital, certain companies have spotted opportunities to offer bridge building services. Good on them!

Thats not my issue, I love my Dropbox and Evernote! My question concerns the number of people in society who are using these services. Lets take a quick look at the number of global users for some of these bridge building services we have mentioned:

  • Dropbox: 100 million users
  • Pinterest: 49 million users
  • Evernote: 60 million users

So if these figures are correct then we are talking in the region of 200 million users (assuming some level of overlap). At this point I should acknowledge that there are other bridge building behaviours (for example emailing yourself links) that customers use but these are difficult to measure.

However, it still seems to me that there are potentially a lot of web users out there attempting to perform these macro transitions without any help whatsoever. Thats a lot of people struggling with the “What, Where and Why” and thats my problem with many existing cross channel experiences.

The trouble with resumption

Easing the burden of a macro transition typically relies upon a customer being both digitally savvy and proactive enough to adopt a bridge building service or application. I would argue these types of individuals are in the minority when compared to the total target population of many services.

Maybe this is only a temporary problem given the state of technology, the publics level of digital literacy and the range of commercially available alternatives in 2013. Whilst I love the concept of Just in Time Interaction, we are not there yet.

In my opinion, as long as navigating a macro transition relies on the proactive downloading of an application then there will always be a significant proportion of our target audience who will struggle in our services.

I will revisit the topic of transitions again but to conclude I want to leave you with a quote from the fantastic Thinking in Systems by Diana Wright and Donella Meadows. The quote comes from an old Sufi story and to me sums up everything about dealing with transitions in modern service ecosystems:

You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

When in doubt: Minimising uncertainty across a service

Doubt. We have all experienced it at some point or another. That nagging feeling about whether we should do something or not. Should we continue or just turn away, choosing another course of action.

In experience design we talk a lot about things like conversion rates, task failure, and the understanding of the customer. However, recently I have been thinking about the distinction between what we consider to be a genuine mistake (for example, a customer’s failure to see the big shiny call to action on the page) and the scenario where a customer has a complete understanding of the situation they are in, they just have a reluctance to proceed.

The wikipedia entry for Doubt states:

…Doubt brings into question some notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults of appropriateness.

It is the part about “may involve delaying or rejecting” that interests me. This would seem to imply a customer led conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that the action they are about to engage in will result in some negative consequence.

At this point I would like to make it clear that I am not talking about issues surrounding trust of an organisation per se. I am talking about doubts that a customer feels when they are unclear as to whether their current course of action will adversely affect them now or at some point in the future.

The formation of doubt across a service
Recently I have been thinking that many cross channel services have the potential to instil a higher level of doubt in users over the impact their actions are having across the entire service. Much has been written of the silo-like nature of many services whereby the design of customer touch points in Channel A are vastly different compared to Channel B. Recent examples I have seen include:

The big number on my letter says Account Number but the website is asking for a Customer Reference Number. I better ring them to check


When I looked online yesterday this item had 30% off but now i’m in-store its full price. Ill check on my phone…oh its a different website again…

Remember I am not talking about customer confusion or misunderstanding here (these topics warrant further blog posts themselves). I am talking about a customer having a clear idea of where they are in the system but being reluctant to proceed.

Seeking reassurance
So we find ourselves in a situation whereby a customer is aware of their location in our wider service but due to disparities between our channels they are experiencing a high level of doubt. What typically happens in this situation?

A channel shift. More specifically a shift to a channel that will provide us with a greater sense of reassurance. For example, moving from a “Top Tasks Only” mobile site to the main desktop. Or moving from a desktop to a call centre. Therefore the consequences of these moments of doubt are hitting services twofold:

  • Customers are typically switching to more expensive methods of engagement, for example call centres vs. digital channels;
  • Customers are delaying (or even discontinuing) their engagement with the service, thus adversely affecting conversion rates.

Designing to mitigate the formation of doubt
So how can we design in such way as to mitigate or eliminate the effect that these moments of doubt can have in a service? The discussion around the design of cross channel ecosystems is vast but for the benefits of this blog post lets frame a “moment of doubt” for a customer as follows:

I am in an emotional state because what I am doing is really important to me. Here I am about to proceed with Action X. However, I notice that there is a discrepancy that is jarring with what I know about the system. If I get this wrong, Bad Thing Y is bound to happen. I have alarm bells going off in my head! Should I proceed?

When thinking about doubt in this way, three factors immediately appear as having an effect:

  • Consistency: This will be a critical factor in the likelihood of a moment of doubt forming. Inconsistency across channels in terms of interaction design patterns, terminology and visuals will always set alarm bells off as they naturally imply a difference between what a customer has done before and what a customer is doing now. Differences subconsciously imply that I may be doing the wrong thing!;
  • Clarity of process: Am I aware of the next steps in the process with which I am engaged? Being aware of the bigger picture is critical to a customer when they are experiencing a moment of doubt. It enables a customer to better rationalise the potential consequences of proceeding. It enables a customer to start to ask themselves if their concern is a showstopper that absolutely requires clarification, a minor inconvenience or not a problem at all.
  • Feedback: If I have experienced a moment of doubt during my journey through the service, it is the application of well designed feedback that will alleviate my fears. Good feedback provides that reassurance that we are seeking whenever we feel unsure. Likewise the lack of good feedback is likely to result in an unnecessary channel shift as the customer seeks assurance that they have done the right thing (Avoidable Customer Contact to use the parlance of a call centre manager I have been working with).

My intention with this blog post has been to explore the idea that there maybe value in making a distinction between moments of confusion (“how do i do this?”) and moments of doubt (“I am uncertain whether to proceed”) within a service.

In my opinion, the successful mitigation of moments of doubt would require a holistic service view to be taken in order to identify the interplay between channels. Moments of doubt would appear to be highly contextual in nature as they are inherently made up of a customers wider fears about what it is that they are trying to do. Therefore, your customers doubts will likely be formed based on their perceived interplay of your entire service rather than just the channel they find themselves in at the time.

If this is the case then this leads me to question if most service providers have the level of cross channel understanding required to successfully mitigate these risks?

Somehow I doubt it.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.

Cross Channel Snapshot #1: Marks and Spencer’s in-store experience

Here is a quick snap shot of the in-store experience of a Marks and Spencer in Gloucester. As you can see the digital and physical continue to collide. Despite being a busy store it was the one part of the shop that no customer was in (except for me with my crafty and blurry iPhone photography). I wonder why?

Ignoring its low uptake by customers, I like the use of the coat hanger prompts and clear signposting.  However, you wonder how many customers truly understood what they could do in this area of the shop.  I like the idea of these quick and dirty cross channel snap shots so will keep my eyes peeled…

Photo of large call to action on a wall with a large tough screen device underneath.  The call to action tempts customers to search online whilst in the store. Close up of a dress on a coat hanger.  The coat hanger prompts customers to scan the dress at the wall display. Separate touch screen built into the shop wall with a scanner next to it for scanning in items of clothing A close up photo showing the various menu options on the in-store touch screen