The Clear War
by Kevin Mattice (Mr. X)
Once when I was doing some work for a well-known brand, the company's marketing group decided it was going to start selling gift cards. They asked me to come in early on the project so I could begin thinking about how to incorporate this new type of payment into the site's checkout path.
"Yeah," the marketing guy explained, "and since a gift card would probably cover only part of a typical purchase, you'll also have to allow for more than one kind of payment per transaction."
"Oh," he said, "and we'll need some functionality to show how much is left on a card, but I don't want it to be real easy to find or use, you know?"
Ah. Now we have a problem. •
• You see, gift cards can be a nice source of revenue for a brand, for obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. One of those not-so-obvious reasons is something called breakage. If a customer never gets around to using the entire amount on the card, the issuing company eventually keeps that balance—or breakage—for itself. Or, if breakage rates are low, it might charge a usage fee after a certain period to reclaim some of the "lost revenue" the company was counting on.
This reminds me of a sharp little story called Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow. In the story, the protagonist was a user experience designer working as a secret agent in a rival tribe, except his real mission was to render the rival's products unusable so as to make his own tribe's products more marketable. In other words, he was using his design skills for evil. I was being asked to do much the same thing by reducing the usability of the brand's website to the detriment of its unsuspecting customers.
I think that's what bothers designers about poorly made products. Not only does bad design seem lazy and inattentive, we wonder if there could be another explanation for its shoddiness. If an interface is confusing, was it made that way intentionally or are the designers just incompetent? And if I learn that a product is out of stock only after I decide to buy it, am I the victim of an honest mistake or is the merchant pulling a bait-and-switch on me?
Commerce has always been an exercise in game theory: You want to sell to me, but you don’t know what I’ll spend. I want to buy from you, but I don’t know what you’ll take. It's more like a poker game where all the cards are hidden than a chess match, where everything is out in plain view. With this sort of imperfect information we take extraordinary steps to ferret out what the other is thinking or planning, as if we're permanently stuck in a Cold War of our own making. But it doesn't have to be that way, and I think a lot of us are getting tired of it. We expect the design of sites and software to help us make a decision, not hinder us. We want design to be just as transparent as the rest of our world is becoming, because the truth about a product or company is too easy to find or figure out in these days of growing transparency. Enough already. Please.
Designers should be arbiters of the truth: They should be the kind of people who stand up and tell it like it is, and that usually calls for courage. Fixing a bad customer experience requires the courage to admit that something’s wrong, and it only comes from a willingness to be transparent, to be open and honest, to communicate, and to be accountable. Good design is all that, and good designers are as transparent as they can be, even if it hurts them. Sometimes it does.
Right or wrong, companies who care little about the design of a customer's experience are often thought to care little about its customers. Poor design encourages people to believe in a brand’s ham-handedness, in its cloth-eared reluctance to listen and respond. If openness, communication, and accountability are the bellwethers of clarity, then poor design is a smudge—a flaw that seems to hide rather than reveal. That was the problem with my breakage scenario: The marketing guy preferred to hide from people, withholding information and feigning incompetence rather than fulfilling what seemed to be a sincere obligation.
In the end, the gift card idea evaporated as quickly as it was conceived, so I didn't need to stand up and object to slimy tactics. But it left me with the deep understanding that there’s not much excuse for poor design these days. Even if you're not a designer of some sort, most of us are savvy enough and experienced enough to tell the good stuff from the bad and to do something about it. And yet still we stumble through awkward, confusing, or even deceptive brand encounters, and it leaves a lot of us outraged and angry or simply puzzled as we seek out a reasonable explanation for a rotten experience.
Excuses abound. But there isn’t a reasonable explanation, and we all know it. •