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Tone of voice matters (show some respect)

I had to share with you this particularly appalling piece of email marketing that hit my inbox the other day. The back story is that somehow I had come across a £25 voucher to use at VirginWines – I went and had a look at the site to see if it was something I was interested in – after all, £25 worth of wine for free is usually something I was interested in. Before I realised that I would have to spend well in excess of my £25 voucher to be able to buy any wine on this site, I registered to ‘redeem my voucher’ and gave them my email address.

Several weeks later, this arrives:

Dear Leisa

I am not a sensitive person by nature, but I have to say that I am feeling a little hurt. We’ve invited you into our Club, but you’ve clearly decided not to.

So, as a one-off attempt at sheer bribery, I‘m offering you your first, trial Club case HALF PRICE at just £47.88 (that‘s a ridiculously low £3.99 a bottle!). Plus, two FREE gifts, worth £30. That‘s an overall saving of nearly £80.

Sound good? Then click here to claim your HALF PRICE case and FREE GIFTS.

But you‘re probably not ready to join yet. You‘re probably thinking…

I can buy the wines anywhere.

Well you can‘t actually. The boutique wines we reserve for our Club Members never appear in the supermarket. And they are always offered to members at a lower price than non-members get them for.

It‘s just like one of those ghastly book clubs.

Er…sorry, not correct on this one either. Quite simply, you have no obligation to take any wine you don‘t want. You don‘t even have to pay us for any wines that don‘t blow your socks right off.

I‘m not the joining type.

If we explained that the reason we have a Club in the first place is because 40,000 people can buy better than 1, perhaps you‘d change your mind? If you join us, 40,001 people will buy better than 40,000.

Or maybe you‘ve just not got around to it. Which is fine. People who buy wine by the case tend to be busy.

So what would be a good reason?

Here‘s one good reason to test us out right now. We‘re keen to recruit new Members. So, for one last time I‘m offering you your first, trial Club case HALF PRICE at just £47.88

Take our HALF PRICE case NOW, and you‘ll receive a complimentary pair of beautiful Dartington Wine Glasses, completely FREE. Plus, a FREE professional lever corkscrew, worth £20.

Still not sure?

What is the worst thing that can happen? If you don‘t like the wines, I promise to refund you instantly, without any fuss whatsoever. If you agree that these wines are a big step better than you can get in the supermarket, you can look forward to a lifetime of feeling superior to non-members.

So why don‘t you join us now and find out what it‘s all about for yourself? Not next week, but right now.

Cheers

Rowan Gormley
Founder, Virgin Wines
www.virginwines.com/reasons3

0870 050 0305

The insight that the tone taken in this email gives me to this brand is profound, and frankly, I don’t want anything to do with a company who has this kind of attitude in their customer communications.

We’ve spoken before about positive ways to handle ‘abandonment’ – well, here is the flipside, a combination of guilt-tripping (‘I am not a sensitive person by nature, but I have to say that I am feeling a little hurt. We’ve invited you into our Club, but you’ve clearly decided not to’), cynicism (‘So, as a one-off attempt at sheer bribery…’) and smart talk (‘Er…sorry, not correct on this one either…’). Yes, consumers today are media literate and this level of ‘openness’ could potentially work well, but be nice about it. I’m supposed to enjoy buying wine, with this email VirginWine have put me right off my drink!

Take care with your tone – and of course, this applies to any kind of copy that you’re writing. And know that only *very* few brands can be anything but nice to their customer.

Understanding abandonment – how thoughtful ‘checkout’ design pays dividends

I’ve been doing a lot of my shopping online recently and it has gotten me thinking about the opportunities for designing ecommerce systems that we often don’t bother spending time on. We just plug in ‘off the shelf’ solutions and this means that all too often we’re not thinking about ways that we can design the shopping experience so that it better supports the way that people actually want to shop online.

It seems from many online shopping experiences that there is an assumption that the online shopping experience has just a few simple steps:

  1. locate the product you want to purchase
  2. select that product (put it in the basket)
  3. pay for the product and arrange delivery

Although, for some people some of the time, the process is this simple, very often there are much more complex pathways that people take when shopping – both online and offline. Unfortunately, very often the design of online systems doesn’t support this additional complexity. Very often just a few small changes would make a great difference.

Here are just a few examples I’ve come across lately.

Scenario: I’m in the market, but I’m not quite ready to buy.
Design requirement: Save shopping basket

There are many reasons why people don’t quite complete a transaction, but one that I find is really very common is this one… I’m just not quite ready to buy yet. It could be that it’s a large transaction and I need to be completely certain that I want to buy it, it could be that I’m comparing your product or price or service with your competitors, but quite often I’ll do the first and second stages of the shopping process – locating products and putting them in the trolley – but not be quite ready to give you my payment details.

It is amazing how many e-commerce systems ‘forget’ all the shopping I’ve done – some apparently deliberately, with time out error messages to boot. This means that, when I come back with my credit card out and ready to shop, I have to start all over again – finding the products and putting them back into the basket. Depending on the size of your product range and the state of your information architecture, this can sometimes be a particularly daunting task – daunting enough to perhaps result in abandonment.
Where is the value to anyone in ‘forgetting’ what’s in my basket? Who benefits from this? Certainly not your customer who has to go to extra effort when they return to make their purchase, and not the business either, who will almost certainly be losing revenue as a result of this design decision.

Amazon (predictably) are a great example of how not to forget what’s gone in the basket – their ‘buy later’ functionality means that I can even choose to not buy something that is in the basket and *still* not have it deleted or forgotten. Amazon is an excellent example of how to manage this ‘remembering’ – but many small ecommerce sites have similar functionality – you don’t have to be Amazon to be able to do this.

It will take a little more technical effort and design work to manage this ‘saving’ of the basket but it should definitely be the default for all e-commerce systems.

Scenario: I’m in the market, but I’m not quite motivated to buy.
Design requirement: Follow up and provide incentive

I also call this one ‘The Almost Impulse Buy’ – again, the customer goes almost all the way through the purchasing process but pulls out just as it comes time to commit with their wallet. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t quite go through with the purchase, but three surprisingly common ones are:

  1. they simply forget! – surprisingly, buying your products is not the only and most important thing that your customer is dealing with. Other more important stuff comes up, they get distracted – and they quite simply forget that they were ever just about to hand over some of their hard earned cash to you. They move on and don’t make it back.
  2. they need just a little more reason to buy – it could be that they don’t really *need* your product, or that they don’t really need to buy it from you, or that they feel as though they should do a little more research or wait a little time before buying – there is not quite enough motivation for them to complete the purchase at that time.
  3. something you’re doing sucks – it could be that something is broken, a question is not answered, or something about your product or service just doesn’t quite match your customers needs… this is unresolved and, as a result, so is this transaction.

Each of these ‘problems’ has a very similar solution – get in touch! Drop me an email, tell me you’ve noticed that I didn’t quite complete my purchase, ask me if something was wrong, give me an alternative method to purchase (a return email, a phone number) or a way to tell you what was wrong, give me an incentive to complete the purchase now.

Recently I almost purchased a hamper online at Fortnum & Mason – about 24hours after I *didn’t* complete the transaction I received an email from them letting me know that they’d noticed, asking me if there was a problem and telling me that if I *did* complete the purchase they’d put me in a draw to win an enormous hamper for free. Nice work.

Other smaller sites have sent me emails that seem to me to be human generated – one even had a little note telling me that something I had almost purchased was now available as a special deal. Perhaps they’re hand done, perhaps they’re automated, the end result is a little warm fuzzy for the customer – you noticed that they didn’t go through with the purchase and you care enough to find out why and to try to win their business. For the small amount of effort that this would require, it wouldn’t take very many conversions to make this time and money well spent.

Scenario: I’m just researching but information I need is buried in your purchasing process
Design requirement: Make desired information more easily accessible to your customers outside of the purchasing process.

Sometimes abandonment isn’t actually abandonment… sometimes it’s just research that can’t be done any other way. Understanding delivery charges and timeframes is an example you’ve probably come across before – you can’t find out about what delivery options are available without going through the process of purchasing, even though you’re not at all committed to that purchase. I once had a client who had a geographically restricted service, but the only way you could find out if that service was available to you was to commence the purchase transaction where step three was ‘put in your postcode to find out if we can provide service in your location’. These things sound pretty dumb and obvious, but you run into them all the time. Meanwhile, back at corporate HQ, people are wondering why shopping baskets are being abandoned at step three…

As well as making it easier for your customers, providing this information outside of the transactional process also helps you get more accurate numbers on the effectiveness of your design – those customers who are just going through the motions to get the information shouldn’t be counted as abandonments at all – in many cases, this results in undue resources being spent on redesigning step three, when, in fact, the real problems that cause committed customers to drop out are somewhere else entirely.

So – just a few of my favourite ways that you could potentially make some small changes and reap almost immediate benefits for your e-commerce business. I’d be interested to hear of any other basket/checkout related bugbears you have and how they should be addressed by user experience designers.

It’s not easy being an edge-case

An important part of doing good design work is to decide what exactly it is you are designing and who exactly you are designing for – after all, you can’t be all things to all people. A side-effect of this good practice is the creation of edge-cases – people who might want to use your design, but who have requirements that you have not particularly designed for. Ideally you want to make it *possible* for these people to achieve their goals, but it is not the focus of your design work. As such, it may be a little trickier for them than it is for your defined target audience(s).

Interestingly, I’ve found that by moving countries but not changing my email address I’ve become an edge-case for some applications and websites that I used to use quite frequently and that you probably use now too.

iTunes, for example, wants me to use the UK iTunes store now rather than the Australian store. This is fair enough and, I’m sure, is all to do with licensing. Thing is, they also want me to register with the UK store, but when I go to register, they pick up the email address I’m using and tell me that my email address has already been registered. There doesn’t seem to be any way that I can update my profile to ‘move’ myself from Australia to the UK – the only option that iTunes gives me is to use the Australian iTunes store… which sounds well and good except I can’t use my UK credit card at the Australian store, and I’ve ditched all my Australian cards. The end result is that, unless I want to give iTunes a different email address and register with the UK store using that address, I can’t buy tunes from Apple. Annoying.

Similarly, PayPal deals very inelegantly with members who move countries. Again, there is not way that you can update your profile from one country to another. Rather, you have to close your old account and open a new one. You can’t transfer funds from the old account the new account either – you have to withdraw the funds, in my case to an Australian bank account (which, you guessed it, I’ve already closed).

So, what’s the point? Am I going to moan and complain because iTunes and PayPal have either not thought or not cared to create a better experience for people who move countries and don’t change their email address? Well, no. I’m sure that the number of people who are in my situation is relatively small, and as such, the effort required to improve the experience is better spent looking after the majority of their target audience.

This is one of the first times, though, that I’ve found myself as an ‘edge-case’ for two services that I would happily choose to use on a regular basis, and it is a rather unsettling experience. At this point, my desire to use their services is not outweighed by the effort required to make this possible. I’m having to find other places and ways to spend my money and, although I theoretically understand why they’re treating me so badly, the poor experience has removed any warm fuzzy feelings I had for either service.

What’s the moral to the story? I think, perhaps, that it’s not to try to eliminate edge-cases – all you achieve by doing that is to give everyone a very mediocre experience. Perhaps, though, be aware of instances where people who were previously smack in the middle of your target audience become edge-cases and try to make their edge-case experience not utterly impossible. Recognise that there are two types of edge-case audiences – edge-cases who don’t really care, and edge-cases who are quite fond of you but have just gotten into a tricky situation. Perhaps spend just a little more time looking after the latter. They’ll thank you for it.

Design Ethics – Encouraging responsible behaviour

I got a call from my bank, HSBC, the other morning. The call started something like this.

Rob: ‘Hi, this is Rob from HSBC. Before I can continue this conversation I need to confirm some security details with you. Can you tell me your date of birth please’.

Leisa: ‘You must be kidding Rob. I have no reason to believe that you really work for HSBC. Why on earth would I just hand over my personal information like that?’

Now, I don’t know whether Rob was just improvising, or whether this is an official HSBC script, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. What Rob and HSBC are doing here is treating people to NOT take care with their personal information. What is this going to do for HSBC and their customers? It’s going to make them both much more likely to get stung by fraudsters, and to both lose time and money for no good reason.

Surely HSBC should be going out of their way to educate their customers NOT to hand over personal information whenever some random person calls up asking for it.

Either way, Rob was not impressed. He did have a backup plan (I give him part of the information and he confirms the rest… which is slightly better), but he took *that* tone with me for the rest of the call. You know, that ‘you’re an irritating customer’ tone. Not a great start to the day.

You know what it reminds me of? And it’s something that more and more of us are guilty of participating in – especially those of use who are designing applications that support social networks. It reminds me of this:

Facebook - Find Friends

This is the ‘find friends’ feature that we’re seeing on more and more sites (this one is taken from Facebook) where we are blithely asked to put in the full log in information for our email accounts, or our IM accounts or our other social network site accounts – and, more often than not – we do!

Now, clearly there is a big incentive to do so because these kinds of applications work well only when you’ve managed to connect with the people you know and care about, and using existing information like the contacts from your email or IM account makes this reasonably painless. The application does most of the work for you.

But do we really realise what we’re handing over when we give this log in information away? Do we realise how much we are trusting Facebook, for example, to play nicely with that information? Think of all the email and IM conversations you’ve had that are accessible using these login credentials… now think about the level of security at somewhere like, say, HM Revenue & Customs (where they recently ‘lost’ the personal information of millions of UK taxpayers), and now think whether somewhere like Facebook would have better or worse security… both now, and potentially in the future.

Sure, they *say* they’re not going to store or use that information… but are you really willing to take them at their word? Are you willing to TRUST Facebook (or any other site) that much?

We don’t really think much about this when we’re giving away our username and password, do we?

And why not? Because, just like Rob at HSBC, it’s almost as though we’re being pressured into just handing over the information otherwise we’ll get inferior service (and/or an attitude). We’re actually being trained to believe that handing over this information is the RIGHT thing to do.

Brian Suda calls this ‘Find Friends’ form an anti-pattern. He says in a recent Sitepoint article:

Another pitfall that you’ll want to avoid is sites that ask for the login details for your email account. This is a huge security hole. By handing over this information, you’re giving a random provider access to all your emails and friends, not to mention access to APIs through which they could edit and delete your information. And, as none of us want to admit, we often use the same passwords for many different services. Provide your email password to a site, and its owners can not only get into your email, but possibly your bank accounts (and a bunch of other services) as well. You should never give your password to anyone! Creating assurances of privacy lulls us into a false sense of security — it relaxes us into thinking everyone can be trusted and everything will be safe. This bad behaviour is exactly what phishers love to prey upon.

Enter design ethics. If ethics plays any part in the way that you’re designing your application or website, then this should be raising hairs on the back of your neck… you should be thinking that this is not right and that there is probably something you should be doing about this.

In fact, there are at least TWO somethings that I think we should be doing in this situation.

  1. The first is that we should be doing our best to help our customers/users/members to protect themselves. We should be educating them about the risks of handing over this kind of information and we should NOT be normalising this kind of behaviour.
  2. The second is that we should be looking for and encouraging alternatives to this ‘find friend’ functionality and we should be encouraging our clients/companies to opt for implementations that help our customers/users/members be more secure.

The kind of alternative that we should probably be looking for is something like OAuth which is an open protocol to allow secure API authentication in a simple and standard method from desktop and web applications. It is designed to help you get the information you need to give your end users a good experience without asking them to hand over personal information, like a username and password. Check out this demo of the current user experience. As far as I know, OAuth is not live on the web anywhere yet, but its cousin, OpenID is starting to be more widely adopted.

Of course, if we all had portable social networks, then that would also make things an awful lot simpler and more secure but it all seems quite a way off yet… why so far off you ask? Well…
So far, however, the drive to develop and promote these more secure alternatives is very much being driven by the more technical people on the web. There are lots of scary sounding discussions around exactly how these methods should work. Designers are, for the best part, not to be found in these conversations.

This is problematic from couple of perspectives.

  1. Firstly – if anyone is going to be able to drive the uptake of something like OpenID or OAuth, then it is going to be UX people, the people who are designing the experiences and making recommendations about what constitutes a good experience. Unfortunately, too often by the time the techies get a look in, all the functional decisions have been made and it’s too late to retrofit what would potentially be a much better solution for our end users. We have a responsibility to know about these things and to promote them.
  2. Secondly – from a user experience perspective, there are a lot of challenges to be found in OpenID and OAuth, primarily because you need to educate people about what is going on and also because you are typically moving them through quite a complex flow – including from one site or application to another and then back again. At the moment, the user experience of OpenID and OAuth are far from ideal, but rather than using this as a reason not to work with them, we should be seeing this as an opportunity to engage with these design problems and to use our experience and expertise to help get the user experience as good as it can be.

At any rate – looking after the security of our end users is now very much a part of the responsibility of the designer – whether it is through helping to educate those end users not to hand over information irresponsibly, or by guiding our clients/companies to use methods that better protect our end users. We need to be engaging in these discussions and helping to guide them both from the perspective of the businesses we’re working with as well as in the ongoing technical discussions about how these technologies work.

I think we have a responsibility to help protect our end user, even from themselves. To ignore this responsibility is unethical.

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