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How to lose customers and alienate people

South African websites repeatedly make basic usability mistakes. The results: frustrated customers, negative brand impact, reduced online sales, and poor return on investment for the whole web project.

The best advice for making an impact online is to Zig when others Zag. Stand out. Be amazing. Give a shit.

But if you work for a South African corporation, I’m sure you’ll feel much more comfortable following the herd. So here are five instructions for making sure your ecommerce site delivers industry-standard quantities of pain and frustration.

1. Let the programmers write the copy

Here’s an error message Flow discovered during a usability test for MWEB. If you choose the wrong kind of password, you get a message that says:

Oops indeed...

This kind of language is fine for programmers, but there are a lot of people who might want to buy an internet connection but are not sure what the word “alphanumeric” means.

So how about, “Please make sure there are both letters and numbers in the password you choose, to improve your online security.” Surely more people will understand what that means?

Usability recommendation for the inspired: You won’t ask a copywriter to program JavaScript. So don’t ask the programmers to write the copy.

2. Help users to lose their work (and their tempers)

I need to log into my Standard Bank account. I have to type in a 16-digit card number, a five-digit PIN and a 10-digit password. I am then presented with two identical buttons: login, or reset.

Can you think of any scenario where someone would want to type in all those numbers, and then clear the form? No?

But can you think of a scenario where someone might type it all in, and then accidentally click on the wrong button, thereby losing all his work and getting very annoyed with Standard Bank? Yes, because it’s happened to you, hasn’t it?

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Just get rid of the reset/clear button on your form. It serves no useful purpose.

3. Assume your customers know as much as you do

You customers don’t know how your business works, or understand the complexities of the products you sell. They don’t care either. They just want to buy something that works for them. The job of your website it to present your goods to the customer like a salesman, not like a telephone book.

Here’s a choice example from Vodacom. I go to their website to see how much airtime I can get for my budget. I click “browse packages”, and get the following:

Hey what? I want a contract, but how am I supposed to know the difference between Talk, Weekender and 4u? Is Yebo4Less going to give me better value than Per Second Plus? If you work for Vodacom, this page will make perfect sense to you. If you’re just an ordinary Joe, it’s a complete mystery.
So maybe I’ll try the link that says “Compare Packages”. Oh dear:

Hundreds of packages, each one more incomprehensible than the last. Should I choose Top Up 135 S or Top Up 135 Lite? No wonder South Africans prefer to buy face-to-face if this is what they get online.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Create personas: realistic fictional characters that represent your target customers. Then walk through the site from their point of view and see how it looks.

Or, hang out at your call centre for a day and listen to what customers are asking and how the call centre staff explain things.

4. Make it impossible to buy

If your website is selling something, it is vital that people should be able to buy it. Am I stating the obvious? In practical terms, that means that your forms should be the most rigorously usability-tested part of your site. Take the example below from SAA. I thought I typed in a perfectly reasonable request – I wanted tickets from Cape Town to London…

This is what I got when I pressed the Continue button…

The Departure and Destination points are the same? But one says Cape Town and the other says London! (BTW, this isn’t a bug. This is caused by a weird field validation issue. Try it).

I’m sure SAA would have a perfectly legitimate technical explanation for what happened here. But from the user point of view, it just didn’t work. If I can’t even see the price, I certainly can’t buy the product. Not a good outcome for SAA.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Watch your analytics after launch to see where people are getting error pages. You need to continuously improve your site – don’t just launch it and forget about it.

5. Create messy information architecture and crazy navigation

I went to the information desk at Absa because I wanted to change my daily withdrawal limit. The lady behind the counter told me that I needn’t have queued – I could just do it online.

She then produced a handwritten and much-photocopied piece of paper, with instructions on how to do it. It’s not complicated, but it’s utterly obscure: you need to click on Service Information, then Registration, then Change Limits. I still have to look at the piece of paper every time I need to do this.

People find online information through something called Information Scent. It doesn’t matter if you have to click five times to get to the thing you want, as long as the “scent” is obvious. Clicking on “fresh produce”, and then “fruit” to get to bananas is a strong information scent.

Replicating such a strong scent for something complicated like banking terms requires careful design of your information architecture. But if you don’t do it, your customers will come and bother your customer service team. And that costs more.

Usability recommendation for the inspired: Try card sorting. Ask some of your customers to first name and then group the functions, by grouping little cards into piles. Then build a click-through and test some other customers to see if they can find things.

If you want to persuade your colleagues that there’s a problem, start with a usability test. Get 10 target customers, sit them down in front of your site, and record what they do. It’s the most vivid dose of reality your team or your boss is likely to get.

That’s the first step to building a site that sells more, with lower costs, to loyal, repeat customers. What a concept.


  1. Adiel

    April 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    In fairness to MWEB, I think alphanumeric is self explanatory.
    I think No.3 on your list is probably the most common issue we come accross

  2. clivesimpkins

    April 2, 2010 at 7:15 am

    This is a truly *wonderful* post. (What follows is not unkindly intended): I then go to subscribe to the site and get an error message on every single one of the options. I eventually get to a Memeburn box that says 'subscribe' but doesn't indicate what it wants in the box. I trust this is a temporary or server error. But it's just as disappointing as some of the examples you've given.

  3. nigelbrown1

    April 2, 2010 at 11:18 am

    A conference and workshop called Web Accessibility & Usability is being run on 13 May 2010 in Johannesburg, the program can be found here: http://www.classicevents.co.za/conference.htm

  4. helentb

    April 2, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Some great points made here; so I tried to subscribe via the RSS feed, and like clivesimpkins, got an error message. Please fix – this undermines the post (and I'd still like to subscribe!)

  5. matt

    April 7, 2010 at 12:32 am

    Hi there — the issues you were experiencing were teething issues associated with our launch. They have now been resolved — maybe try subscribe again and let us know if they still persist? Matt B

  6. IntuitionHQ

    April 8, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Great article, and great advice. Sometimes it feels like these sites just don't want customers. It just drives me nuts every time I find it too.

    Another pet peeve is sites that tell me I need to be running IE to be able to view the content. Come along to the 21st century people!

    I'd also like to suggest another tool you can add to your usability arsenal. We've developed a tool at http://IntuitionHQ.com – of course it's not as comprehensive as in-person testing, but it's really quick, cheap and effective.

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. IntuitionHQ

    April 8, 2010 at 5:58 am

    Oh, and not just South Africa by the way. This happens all around the world!

  8. danielforer

    April 9, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    The above usability issues happen as SA companies are ignorant to what usability really is. This is to say (i) they have no knowledge of usability &/or (ii) have no understanding of usability. They also do not quantify the cost of these issues & think they know better when approached to fix them.

    Comparing big business in SA and abroad, the problem is more common in SA. Partly for the above reasons, but also because international companies realise the ROI of usability & get a usability professional involved early on & give them authority to do what they have been employed to do.

    I've heard SA companies brag about their “most usable” web applications (i.e. Standard Bank is won of them & even made an ad campaign out of it, yet they are on the list above), but are confused. SAA's autocomplete/validation on destination/departure has irritated me for years. Thats why I generally do not book with them. Maybe they should quantify that cost.

    I challenge these big business to contact real usability professionals & get them involved in their projects. That way they can join the 21st Century. I am a real usability professional in SA and there are others. But beware the prentenders, they lurk out there too.

    So contact one of us.

    You are welcome to contact me.

  9. craigdigivox

    April 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I just cant understand that with Standard Bank, the amount you have to remember everytime if your card isnt on you is fairly annoying as it is, but then again, its your bank on the internet and security is necessary! But that reset button is very unnecessary, BACKSPACE already:)

    I feel your pain with the SAA, had the same issues a couple of months back… was quite stunned at the response they gave me, as I had noticed clearly my departure and destination were DEFINITELY not the same!

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