It's all about usability, people

October 17, 2009 Pivotal Labs

I just started my day with a chain of usability fail from the good folks over at Wells Fargo. It probably wouldn’t have turned into a blog post if Carl Smith hadn’t just come and given his excellent talk, “It’s a Matter of Trust,” on the importance of the customer relationship, just yesterday in our talks series.

It all started when wanted to open a brokerage account at Wells. (One, for the record, that I thought had already been set up after the half-hour long consultation with a banker at Wells.) I followed the link from my checking account page to what purported to be my brokerage account, only to be taken to an application page, not horrible, but still misleading.

On the application page, they tried to upsell me certificates of deposit. I was interested enough to see what the rates were, so I checked the box.

Trapped users abandon

After filling in additional account information, I was taken to a screen asking me how much I wanted to put into a CD. After entering a smaller number, entering a funding source account, and an account into which to deposit interest, I found out that the minimum was actually $5,000. I entered $5,000 into the field (which fortunately I had available in one of my accounts, god knows what would have happened otherwise) and found out that the CD rate at Wells was lower than my savings account rate at ING Orange, not a strong inducement to tie up my money for 9 months. But of course there was no way for me to remove this product from my shopping cart on this page All I could do was ‘continue’ or ‘go back’. (More on the latter option in a moment.)

So I opted to continue, hoping (but no longer expecting) that there would be a way to remove this item from my cart before the end of the transaction.

I filled out the information to open and fund a brokerage account (which of course was the whole reason I was here) and a few clicks later was at the confirmation page.

And of course by this time you’ve guessed: There was no way to remove the CD product from my transaction. There was a link that looked like it may have let me change things, but all it really let me do was to save my application for later, at which future time I’m sure I would have experienced even more frustration at not being able to remove this under performing instrument from my application.

You can tell I was pretty motivated to do all of this, as most people would have abandoned much sooner. I really wanted to get that cash out of the under performing savings account it was in and into the market, so I really wanted this to work out.

It was at this point that I decided to see what the back button could do for me. I paged back, back, back, through all 7 layers of forms I’d already filled out, all the way back to step 2, where I’m verifying my address, all the while cursing that I can’t just click on the handy breadcrumb trail at the top of the wizard that tells you what stage you’re at. And then, as I get to step 2, the back buttons run out. This most basic promise of a back button, that you can keep going back, finally breaks its promise to help me undo this stupidity. And I’m mad.

20 lines or fewer

At this point, it’s time to contact a real human person. There’s a contact us link right there, which just takes me to their phone number, and email form. (Chat here would be nice, and contextual, and cheaper for them than having people on the phone.) No actual email address, of course, though in their defense they claim to want to keep conversations about banking matters secure.

So I write this email in their clunky email form, detailing what happened. And of course you can probably guess: After explaining in sufficient detail that they might learn from what’s happened and actually improve things, I try to submit the form.

Any guesses? Yes of course, my email to customer service is “too long”. (The actual error message is: You have exceeded the character limit in the Questions or Comments field. Please keep your responses to approximately 20 lines of text.) Someone really needs to explain to their dev team that it’s ok to use something larger than a VARCHAR(255) to store things like, oh, the voice of the people who are giving you their money?

Oh, and by the way, their solution to the session timeout problem is to tell you up front: Please complete your email in 20 minutes, or we’ll automatically log you out. Nice to feel like they really want to hear from me. (And of course you know this is a smell from the amount of hate mail they surely received before ‘fixing’ the problem by adding that text.) There are good, secure solutions to letting users extend their sessions. It’s called JavaScript. They should look into it. (And just before anyone reminds me that having JS keep the session open would not be secure, I want to be clear: They could alert you 2 minutes before the session was ready to time out, and give you that 2 minute window to send an AJAX request to keep the session alive for another 5 minutes. A little annoying, but ultimately secure.)

In the meantime I’ve gotten he helpful email that reminds me I’ve saved my application, and encourages me to come back later and complete it. And I’m somewhat surprised to see that it doesn’t come from an obvious address, but instead comes from

Since I had the foresight to copy off my buffer to the clip board, I figured, what the heck, let’s give it a shot! And I replied with my civil explanation of the problem.

And of course the email to bounced. Is it somehow poetic that the mail server at Wells Fargo replies with “User unknown”?

I then shortened my email to Wells, asking them to please let me know where I could send them something longer than 255 characters to explain a problem, and we’ll see what they write back with.

Maybe in the era of Twitter, they will finally have to start listening to customers, or ignore them at their peril. Interesting how often the words “sorry” and “apologize” appear in their twitter feed already….

About the Author


The Bold Italic Launches
The Bold Italic Launches

We're excited that The Bold Italic launched into public beta yesterday. The Bold Italic is a local-content ...

Why Wouldn't You Use Erector?
Why Wouldn't You Use Erector?

No, seriously. Why wouldn't you use Erector? Cause I think it's a pretty awesome view framework, but for so...

SpringOne 2021

Register Now