I am a customer of O2, the mobile (cell) phone company. I recently came across their registration process for customers, and it contained so many problems that it seemed a fine example of what happens if usability is given a back seat in development, and if testers fail to get involved early and ask challenging questions.
I’ve got no involvement with O2, other than as a customer, so I’m guessing at their approach to usability and testing. However, if they do think that they applied usability principles to the registration process, and tested it properly, then the issue simply becomes one of competence rather than commitment.
Identifying individual clients
I only looked at the registration process because of problems I encountered trying to link my business and personal accounts.
For almost as long as large companies have been processing customer data they have been struggling with the problem of identifying individual customers with multiple accounts.
There are numerous benefits if you can crack the problem. You can target direct sales campaigns more effectively. You can develop a deeper understanding of which parts of your market are profitable. You can provide a better customer service.
It’s surprisingly difficult to pin down an individual, however. Names don’t really work well. I could be James Christie, James D Christie, JD Christie, Jim Christie etc. Also, it’s common to have two people with identical names at the same address; different generations of the same family.
Addresses are difficult to work with too. There are so many ways to write them or abbreviate them. Post codes help, but people can get them wrong, and they can cover dozens of separate properties. I once lived in a building with six separate flats. In three of them were Wilsons, all unrelated, all living at 28 Dunkeld Road with the same post code.
So if you can get the customers to put their hands up and say, “yup, I’m both Jim Christie and James Christie. We’re one and the same” then it’s pretty useful. That’s the sort of thing companies like to encourage.
That’s exactly what O2 have done on their website. I’ve got two mobile phones, one business and one personal. Both are with O2. The phones are on separate accounts, but I noticed on the O2 website that it’s possible to link accounts so that you can manage both phones with one login. Great! That’s handy for me, and it’s obviously very useful for O2 too.
I happily signed up, linking the two accounts together. What should have been a classic win-win, in which O2 get more precise customer information, and I can manage my accounts more easily, turned into a bit of a bit of a mess that left me wondering about how O2 deal with usability and testing. It still amazes me when companies try to do something that should benefit customers and then blow it with lousy usability.
Where’s my phone gone?
Nobody got hurt, no-one ended up in court. It was no big deal. It was just that what should have been an easy, positive experience became irritating and made O2 look sloppy. It’s so unnecessary. Getting it right really shouldn’t be all that much harder than botching it, but O2 gaily broke just about every usability rule you could think of.
Linking the accounts was actually very easy. I was logged in to my personal account at the time. So I went ahead and entered the business phone number, and the business account ID and password. That was it. The two accounts were linked. So far, so easy. I then went looking for the business phone. There was no sign of it. The personal account still just had one phone.
I logged out, and back in again. Still no sign of the business phone. I logged out again and tried logging in to the business account. I got a message that the account ID was not recognised. I started to get interested now, and was wondering just what O2 had done.
When I was told that the business account ID was not recognised I was offered the option of registering a new account ID. I entered the business phone number, but was told it was already registered under the personal account ID. I went back into the personal account, but there was definitely no sign of the business phone.
That left me baffled, so I thought I’d register the business phone again, but under a new account ID.
Did O2 really think the registration process through?
I logged out, went to the registration page, and entered my business phone number. That brought up this really weird screen.
Apparently, if I can remember my username and password I should select “Continue to Registration”, so that I can be given a new username and password! Very odd.
The options offered by O2 are, in effect;
a) If you remember both ID and password, go to new registration.
b) If you remember the ID but not password, go to new password.
c) If you remember the password but not the ID, go to ID prompter.
d) If you’ve forgotten both the ID and the password go to new registration (which is where “forgotten username & password” takes you, the same as “a”).
How much thought went into this screen? Didn’t anyone look at it and think that it was daft? It’s not just they don’t seem to have proof-read the screen, the process doesn’t make sense. Remember O2 already know who I am. I’ve got a contract with them for the phone. This registration is to let me manage the account on-line.
Testers should be calling out this sort of problem. If you’re relying on scripts you’re maybe not approaching the exercise in the right frame of mind. Scripts tend not to say, “does the form as a whole make sense, y/n”. They concentrate on the functionality, often at a detailed level that inhibits testers from saying “hang on, this is daft”.
To be sure I have the phone for that contract O2 now text a 6 digit code to my phone, whether I want a new password, a reminder of the account ID or to re-register. This has to be entered on the next page.
So to set up a new account ID all I need is possession of the phone.
Just to emphasise the pointlessness of the whole process O2 will text me the account ID and password after I register. But they won’t text me the account ID and password to let me keep using the existing account ID. They force me to set up a duplicate one, which is still going to be managing the same account.
This takes me on to the form for registering. It seems like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but forms should surely be the one area of a website that you really must test on users.
By testing on users I mean testing early enough to shape the form, not rounding up a few stray bodies to tell you it’s rubbish too late to make any significant changes!
For all the pleading to be allowed to “test early” testers have traditionally been more comfortable focussing on testing late in the life-cycle. Sure, project pressures have forced them into testing late, but I really don’t think there has been sufficient will to break out of the ghetto and help shape applications at an early stage.
I believe that testers should be asking the sort of difficult questions I’ve mentioned here; “why have you done it that way?”, “have you thought about how the users will actually use it, have you thought about the users at all?”
If testers are to be effective, bring real value to their employers, and justify their salaries they have to be prepared to challenge, to do more than just say; “does the output match what was predicted in my script”.
I’ll return to the O2 registration form in a day or so, and discuss other difficult questions that testers should be posing in “O2 website usability: testing, secrets and answers”. I’d love to see what other people think. Please feel free to jump in now, or perhaps wait till my four part rant is over!