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.

6 Responses to “It’s not easy being an edge-case”

  1. Steve Portigal February 8, 2008 at 8:47 pm #

    Agreed, you can’t/shouldn’t eliminate edge cases. They are often beyond the context of whatever is being designed, anyway.

    Interesting that the two examples I think of for myself also have to do with moving from one place to another (and moving is certainly not an edge case, I think the numbers are huge).

    When I moved to the US from Canada, I had a car with a Canadian license plate. At that point the US airports were beginning to document every license plate on every car that left their parking lot. Before I could pay my parking fee and go home, I would get into these complex conversations with the agent, who wanted to know what state my car was from. It’s not from a state. Well, what two letter state code should I use?

    More recently, we moved to a community that doesn’t have home deliver of mail. We have street addresses, of course, but our mailing addresses are all Post Office Box numbers. My credit card billing address, then, is my PO Box. But if I order something to be shipped via courier, they use my street address, not my postal address. And some eCommerce sites absolutely go nuts if those two don’t correspond. Even worse are the sites that use the US Postal Service database for verifying street addresses; we’re not listed, so they decide the address info I’ve given them isn’t valid.

    It’s very frustrating to find that a life change has put you in an edge case situation and the experiences you used to be able to manage easily are now almost broken.

  2. Nick February 11, 2008 at 6:52 pm #

    This is an interesting one, because for an app we were designing that case is actually core (it was a VoIP site that is very likely to be used by immigrants and transients of all sorts) and given some of the hard and annoying business rules that surround moving countries in even the most flexible of payment systems I can quite believe that the best solution (deliverable within a sane timescale) for all concerned is to just give up and start again. Which sucks.

  3. Steve Portigal February 12, 2008 at 5:51 pm #

    Yesterday came news that Starbucks will be shifting WiFi providers from T-mobile to AT&T. That makes my subscription to T-mobile (for wireless hotspots, not for mobile telephone) useless and I looked into how to cancel it. First of all, their hotspot site is different from their main t-mobile site, which is all about telephone service. There’s nothing about how to cancel my account and options to change my account status result in an unfortunately-we-can’t-help-you error. The “contact us” link, from the hotspot part of the site, asks me to fill in a form with all sorts of irrelevant info – like my mobile telephone number (required) – which of course I gave them.

    I actually got a response this time (although they have ignored me every time I’ve contacted them with technical problems such as the iPhone WiFi login not working at Starbucks, etc.) where they seem to assume I’m a telephone customer, NOT a hotspot customer. They can’t find my phone number in their system. Well, duh. I don’t GET telephone service from you.

    In this case, their organizational bias (we sell mobile telephone services; anything else is just noise) has put me in the class of “edge case” – but in some ways it’s a culture creation more than anything else. I’m not really an edge case but they’ve made me one.

  4. DavidR February 29, 2008 at 2:32 pm #

    Another bank problem:

    When I moved from the UK to mainland Europe, my bank allowed me to register my foreign address in free format, instead of city, postcode, etc. in separate fields.
    This avoided their immediate edge-case problem of getting the right address format on statements.

    However, when I tried to order a train ticket (to be collected at the station) prior to a visit home, the card payment routine, which required separate postcode etc, failed to match up my address, and would not accept the booking.

    Another common case is when asking for ‘first name’ – I have, whenever possible, always used only my second forename.
    How am I supposed to remember which one matches the filed version?
    Booking an airline ticket, should I match the name on the credit card, or the one on my passport?
    Get one wrong, and the booking is rejected, get the other wrong, and they won’t let me on the plane.

    Would a bit more fuzziness compromise security too much?

  5. Alicia Navarro March 8, 2008 at 9:55 am #

    I’ve had an identical experience with eBay, Leisa. I tried to use eBay here in the UK with my normal email address, but that account is registered in Australia, and for love nor money could I make it work here in London. I tried adding a UK credit card to my Aussie account, and even that didn’t work.
    So I tried to create a new UK account with a different email address, but because I tried to use my UK credit card again for this account, eBay said my credit card was already used and therefore I couldn’t use it for a new account.
    It was the most frustrating experience, and I wrote a rather angry email to an incredibly incompetent customer service person, who couldn’t work out what to do. In the end, I used someone else’s account. I agree with Steve – moving country is not such an edge case, and its surprising how limiting these international sites are towards such a common occurrence.

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