Monday, 4 June 2012

Terrible user experience is still terrible; bears still at large in woods

User experience is something I didn't care much about until I started working at a software company. Or, rather, it was something I cared about a lot, I just didn't have a useful framework through which to articulate how I felt about it. I found it just as frustrating as I do now when things weren't well-designed for humans to use, but I had no idea that there was a name for it, or indeed an entire profession built around trying to make the aforementioned things less gash to use.

In the last year, after meeting plenty of people who are passionate about this kind of thing, I've found myself noticing it more and more. It doesn't help that the people I know who are passionate about UX are also pretty good at making things which aren't horrible to use - if anything, this makes the many things I encounter which are really badly-designed even harder to tolerate. It's hard to make things incredibly easy to use, sure. But it isn't hard to make them even slightly less bad. So why on earth are so many things so much harder to use than they need to be?

Yesterday, I went to the Post Office to renew my passport. It shouldn't surprise me when anything even closely affiliated with Royal Mail results in a generally horrible experience - in less than a week, it'll be a year since I quit my awful job there and moved back to Cambridge, but the scars from that job still smart when I prod them. By going to the Post Office, for example.

The Cambridge central Post Office on St Andrew's Street has done away with the familiar queues common to most Post Offices up and down this fine island nation of ours, in favour of a ticketing system. Like a meat counter. Or Argos. Instead of a long queue of unhappy-looking people, the central area of the Post Office has a few banks of uncomfortable seats, around which the unhappy-looking people swarm. It's kind of a good idea, in that if you're not paranoid about losing your place, and are fairly sure of the speed at which each query is being processed (though there's no way of telling this), you could conceivably wander off somewhere else and drink a small coffee or look at all the lovely expensive things in John Lewis.

It's not perfect, but it's meant to be an improvement on the old queue system, and in some ways it almost is - the ticket told me that there were eleven people ahead of me, but it didn't seem like very long before my number was called. The new system also allows you to choose in advance what kind of service you require (counter services, travel services, etc.), presumably in an attempt to triage your needs & assign you to the right area ahead of time. It's a good idea, and it (subjectively) seemed to cut down on waiting time.

What was really, really frustrating about the experience was the ticketing machine itself. It's a red box with a screen which comes up to about waist height, and is maybe two metres inside the door. On the screen are a number of options, including Counter Services, Travel Services and Identity Services. There were two more, but I can't remember what they were.

Problem #1: nowhere inside the Post Office (or on the machine itself, or anywhere on the screen) was there a sign saying anything like, "We have a new ticketing system; you have to take a ticket now. This is the ticket machine." Maybe they had signs like that for the first few months, and I just don't go to the Post Office often enough. But you'd think there's be some kind of instruction. I consider myself a reasonably smart person, and it took me a good thirty seconds or so after walking into the building to realise that a) there was now a ticketing system in place and b) I had to take a ticket from the red machine in front of me. Demographically, I'm going to hypothesise that most people who go into the Post Office building itself are not people like me. People my age and with my familiarity with technology don't go to the Post Office unless they absolutely have to. I know I don't. And the people who do go to the Post Office are going to be, on the whole, older and less familiar with technology than I am. They're the kind of people who will often need detailed instructions for doing computer-related tasks which I do automatically, but there were no instructions at all in the Post Office, and I was stumped for a little while.

Problem #2: the little red machine's screen had five options, under headings like Counter Services and Identity Services. These five buttons, with their headings, were literally the only things on the screen. There was no help button, no information button, no further explanation of the different headings and what they encompassed. I wanted to renew my passport, so I took a ticket for Counter Services. Then I looked at the list again, and thought that passport renewals might actually fall under Identity Services. Passports are a form of identification, right? So I took a ticket for that as well, happy that the number of people ahead of me was much shorter for Identity Services than for Counter Services.

Then a Post Office worker came and stood next to the machine, where she was apparently supposed to be permanently stationed. She'd been distracted by helping someone else use the self-service stamp machine (which probably also has horrendous user experience issues). Not feeling particularly confident about the choice[s] of tickets I'd made, I said, "Passport renewals come under Identity Services, right?" The lady shook her head. "No," she said. "That's Counter Services." She went to get me a Counter Services ticket from the machine. I grinned, and brandished the first ticket I'd taken.

And then I kind of lost it a little tiny bit, and did something which I don't usually do in public. I tend to try not to become belligerent in these situations, as it rarely helps, but I decided to say something for once.

"You know, the machine could really do with making the distinction clearer," I said. "It's not easy to tell which option you need."

The Post Office lady gave me a patronising look.

"That's what I'm here for," she said contemptuously.

There were a lot of things I wanted to say at that point. A lot of things I wish I'd said, if I hadn't lost my nerve out of sheer surprise at the ludicrousness of the situation.

"But you weren't here; you were fannying around with the equally ill-designed stamp machine," springs to mind.

More than anything, I wish I'd called her out on her attitude. Not the patronising element, though that wasn't great customer service (a different rant for another day). The point I wish I'd made, and which has been haunting me ever since, is that she shouldn't need to stand there all day. If the user experience of the ticketing machine were even a little better, there would be no need to pay someone to stand next to it all day telling people how to use it. If it had a help screen, or an information screen, or an explanation of what all the different options mean - even if it had a little poster stuck to the front or the top of it outlining that Identity Services does not cover passport renewal - then my experience as a user would have been far better. I would not, for example, be ranting about it on the Internet. They could pay the lady to stand by the stamp machine instead, and patronise people over there.

The idea - the sheer idea - that the best workaround for an ill-designed user interface was to employ a human to show people how to use it is incredibly backwards. And I shouldn't be surprised or horrified really. This is, after all, the Post Office we're talking about. But I can't quite let it go.

I'm not saying that I expect world-class usability, though (for an interface which is going to be heavily used be people with much less technological familiarity than the average person who encounters any given UI) world-class usability wouldn't go amiss. Even average usability would have been a improvement. I work in the tech sector, I grew up using computers, and I was stumped by this piece of shit.

And I have no idea how we even begin to go about sorting it out. As long as people don't care about user design and usability, as long as it's not anyone's priority or budgeted for, as long as it's easier to pay a human to explain an interface than it is to pay a UX designer to make the interface better*, this problem is going to keep on popping up everywhere. And nowhere more than in places - like the Post Office - where usability couldn't be more important based on user demographic. It makes me very angry that things like this happen, and I don't have an easy suggestion for a fix. Just a lot of rage.

*This is analogous with the "give a man a fish" ad campaign that Oxfam used to run back in the 90s, though no one seems to have noticed yet.


  1. Not far from where I live here in the primitive North, there's a medical drop-in centre. It has a private car park, which is free. The catch is that to activate the exit barrier, a customer must get a coin-like token from the reception. It's a fair system, and must prevent the piss-takers as it's intended to.

    However, it is not made clear quite where the token slot is to insert the token to exit the car park, so for the want of a clear sign with a big arrow on it, there is a man who stands at the exit all day, asking for tokens and inserting them in the slot to actuate the barrier.

  2. One thing to note is that, in the Cambridge post office in particular, there are a large number of tourists / students sending mail. A huge number of these people don't speak fantastic English - the large Chinese osmotic movement to Cambridge springs to mind - and, regardless of how well designed the system is they will need personal assistance.

    Not to mention the fact that the Cambridge St Andrew's St post office is incredibly busy, incredibly regularly, and clearly the system can only cope with a certain number before a bottleneck forms.

    I'm not defending the post office here, I hate them just as much as the next man, but the challenge they face is actually a lot deeper than just shuttling people about.

    When I'm waiting I go to the hot sausage company outside Bank. Medium with cheese, onions and tomato relish, with extra mustard. You can borrow my loyalty card if you like. Just in case you get hungry the next time your passport expires.