Category Archives: eCommerce

test for failure, not success

I’m visiting Toronto at the moment and had an experience with a boutique hotel and their website.

As you can see, their room request form is wonderfully simple and usable in design.

Availability request form

It was easy to use, clear and offered just the right amount of options to get the request in. Very pleasing. I’m willing to forgive the copy being sub-standard since the form is so straightforward and is exactly what I need from a booking request.

Unfortunately the message that followed was less than useful.

Lack of availability at the Gladstone Hotel

in text:

You requested:
1 () room for a 3 night stay, arriving on Thursday, October 14, 2010, departing on Sunday, October 17, 2010, to accommodate 1 adult per room.
Room Availability
.. Requested daily number of rooms is greater than maximum.
Click ‘Change Request’ to revise your selections.

I’m not sure what they think I might conceivably derive from this response, but what I actually did was book a room in another hotel down the road, where I could get the sort of room I wanted and the booking was straightforward, and more importantly, successful. I contacted the hotel to let them know of the error, trying to be helpful and the response I received was that the site was not “broken”. I was told the error arose because there were no vacancies on Oct 14. They did not explain why the error message did not say this. They did not try to discover where I experienced a problem, but to their credit, asked several questions to attempt to find me a room, albeit 2 days later.

.. Requested daily number of rooms is greater than maximum.

This clearly is a statement that was never tested with users, for I cannot imagine a test user understanding what went wrong here. Not only was the information supplied unhelpful, clicking either button (Change Request or Continue) produced an application error (Error:500) and stopped me in my tracks. There was no further progress possible. You should attempt to never deliver an application error to your customers and this article from Smashing Magazine might help give you inspiration on what types of response you can give. It shows 404 errors (page not found) but with some clever coding, you could also use it for application errors, like Twitter does when their servers are feeling a bit stressed, causing them to deliver the Fail Whale page. In fact, the Fail Whale is so popular it has it’s own fan club. You should be so lucky with an error page!

This to me was an obvious example of where user testing would come in handy, in particular, testing what happens in the system when someone tries information that produces an error or is outside of expected inputs. If I had changed my dates (not possible in this example) I may have received a better response from the site, perhaps.

It appears to me they spent little if any time working out what would happen if something went wrong and the system needed to deliver an error message. They also didn’t spend any time testing what messages would be delivered to users under different, normal circumstances, like when a room is not available for a desired date.

A valuable lesson is that when planning, building and testing, you need to make sure your communications are succinct and clear, and to test that your error messages make sense to they types of users who come to your site. In addition, you need to prepare for when things go wrong, when people break the bounds of expected or calculated behaviour, and not just when they make choices you are prepared for.

How much business or attention are you losing by not having thought of the errors deeply enough?

PayPal Developer Day

I went to the PayPay Developer Day at The Grace Hotel yesterday, which was described as the launch of  a community for PayPal developers in Australia, the first country outside the US (and Canada?) to participate.  I’ve since noticed the UK in there as well. Since they rightly recognised that developers are their front line and are often the people who scope and recommend a payment processing option, they want to both support and influence their decisions.

Unfortunately it was more of a marketing than developer event, with not enough real world examples and more of a lecture-based set of presentations. As one dev put it, he could have happily followed a few links to play with new features in the API in his own time, as he gained nothing extra from the half-day session away from his computer(s). Devs don’t “look” at code as much as some people think; they look at code as much as cooks “read” recipes. They want to bite into code and try the new ingredients in their own kitchens and with their own pots, pans and spices, and their ideas for flavour combinations. They are very much hands-on people.

But for those with their planning or implementation hats on it was a great day. If you need your payment process channel to do more, and you like the types of tools and features PayPal offers, then selling it as the solution has become much easier. The devs are well supported, both with a local developer centre for all the devs who pass the PayPal Certified Developer exam, as well as a sandbox to test out your installed APIs and mods.

I was a bit worried that it ended earlier than scheduled, so maybe they trimmed out too much from what they thought would fill the day, but I had a great talk with a few of their reps. Seems like The Australian office is pushing the US office for more agility and improvement on the User interface, which looks like it was designed by coders from the 90’s and has no design considerations at all. And it looks like the locals here will get to influence what happens in code much more, by being vocally involved in the dev centre. And to top it off, they were giving out free exams to the first 150 through the event, a saving of $300 (three exams, $100 each).

If you use paypay on your site(s) or are a developer or Project Manager considering a payment gateway or agent, the new tools available, and the certification process presented by paypal will definitely get you closer to a better pay experience.

Money where your site is

The web began as a communication and collaboration tool but soon evolved into much more when someone sorted out how to pay for stuff through it. A secure protocol and security certificates helped make it happen but ultimately it was coders and credit card companies who put payment processes online.

Today the most well known payment process is undeniably PayPal, helped in no small part by the boom of eBay a few years back. I generally had no problem with paypal so long as I kept feeding it money to use for me and people happily paid for my eBay stuff through it. However, problems started when I migrated to Australia from the UK and both eBay and Paypal failed to move with me. Perhaps because Americans think no-one leaves the USA by choice, to move countries permanently, and their view is a world view, that this was not something worth catering for. I have to say it was easier to open a new bank account in my adopted country than to get paypal or eBay to acknowledge my move. I was told that i could change my address, of course, just not to another country.  Neither would accept that I should be able to keep my account open but update it with new address and payment information for another country.

The only answer was to open up a new account in my new country (with a new email address I might add since email is a unique identifier, of course). So goodbye eBay history and PayPay previous payments, and hello newborn newbie accounts. I suffered through the awkward separation and divorce and settled into newly-wedded bliss. Problem was though, my old relationships kept popping out through the cracks like a horror film zombie, to haunt my new babe with my past discretions.

This manifested itself in occasional top level domain redirection (.co.uk from the .com or .com.au I originally typed) or the refusal to buy an item restricted to aus addresses, even though my address and ip address clearly show Aussie-ness.

It would have been OK if the excuse I received made any sense, that it is to avoid international money laundering. That would suggest the system is incapable of managing a decent log of transactions or monitor accounts opening and closing rapidly. But confusingly for me, I don’t understand why it is incapable of understanding a person’s history online is important to them and in many ways, their own property.

Hopefully it’s not an excuse to increase the account count.

So even though it may be off topic, these are the kinds of questions I will be asking at the PayPal Developer Day in Sydney on Monday.

Basically, what is changing in the pay pal interface to make it easier and better for humans to get their tasks done?

A taste of something better

After my rant last week about restaurant sites that don’t take users into account, just like London busses, three good ones come along at once! I didn’t want to leave you thinking I was all whinge and no praise so decided to write about them here.

We were looking for a good Indian food or African food delivery in the neighbourhood and did the searching in my usual way; online.

The first happy discovery was the African Feeling restaurant,which surprised me because, for such a modest and unassuming place, it felt like a very well thought out and professional site. Not perfect, but well ahead of the more expensive and hip competition, I must say. It has room for improvement, but is a very good effort and answers the visitors questions.

Location, menu examples and prices and atmosphere images were easy to find, even if not optimally formatted (menu was a JPEG, not in searchable and SEO friendly text). Nice touches were the great portraits of staff, food, dining room and examples of how a dinner party might look. You can even book a table through the site and get an email confirmation.

My favourite though was the honesty and confidence of linking directly to published food reviews, from notable publications like the SMH, as well as including user reviews.

Nice touch!

But they didn’t deliver, we felt lazy that night, so shelved it for a dinner plan later in the month.

The next one had a name I didn’t like but understood the reasoning for. I was led to Posh Spice through the positive reviews but stayed because of the menu and ordering system which, quite clearly, had been thought about and tested by the providers, Menu Log.

The delivery prices were the same as the restaurant prices, not more than, which is what some third party delivery services charge. The entire process thought about retaining my trust, from the AJAX shopping cart system, through to the email and SMS confirmations and 15% first order discount.

Interestingly, it created confidence in both the restaurant as well as the delivery ordering experience,. difficult to do in one hit.

What pleased me was the recognition of how to speak to people in an online environment, and how to cater to letting them discover their needs. Posh Spice, with their partner MenuLog,. clearly want to help you make your decision eaily.

Oh, and yes, the food was most excellent, (I reccommend the fish with coconut and the “osso-bucco” style lamb shank!) delivered with a smile.

Dymocks is certainly no Amazon

That’s what an associate said to me recently, when describing her recent online buying experience with the Australian bookseller. No Dymocks is not Amazon, they could be even better, if they wanted to.

I keep hearing that Australians don’t shop online much, and are afraid to commit to website purchases. I also notice how online sales are often excluded in many companies’ online strategies when updating their sites for the AU market. I have to disagree with both that strategy and that sentiment. Australians spend quite a bit of time online and would shop online, if they could find sites that DON’T make it harder than extracting teeth to do what others have proved is not too difficult to do.

I have to admit, having come from the UK where you can get anything online, including courier-delivered toast (I kid you not!) it was a bit of a shock. More so with the knowledge that the Australian government is generally good at supplying information and services online. So it’s not like online is a scary, new or tentative place for Aussies. I have a friend who buys all his music online as .wav, .aiff files, or other digital formats. Another friend buys her books from Amazon US because even with shipping and duty it is cheaper than local shops, and quicker too. Many other Australians are looking for ways to buy what they need quickly without having to drive or go down to the shops or malls.

Ok, in the UK, the market is larger with a smaller geographic area, but concern for market size and proximal advantages are questions for a business, not for doing business online. If your business idea cannot support a business plan, online or offline has little difference these days. If you are in the business of shifting easy to sell commodities, like books and CDs or other stuff that fits in small boxes, why are you NOT selling online? There is no rational reason to avoid this, particularly when both the shop and the client win from the deal. The shop has less of that expensive floorspace to manage, and wins new custom among the elderly (who are increasingly looking online for their needs), disabled, remote and busy. The customer gets to research, peruse, compare and buy at a time of their choosing, an increasingly important condition in these days of TIVO and online news and video.

Most of my attempts to buy online here in Sydney have been thwarted by sites that are poorly constructed and conceived, and lacking an understanding of user needs. A depressingly large number of brands are not connected to a shop or online outlets. Many mistakenly think that providing a downloadable PDF of their brochure is a good way to market their products. Why are the mobile Telcos still so terrible a online experience? Why do so many otherwise switched on companies fail to see the advantages of a better, or even minimal but available online shop?

Even for traditionally strong products that sell well to online bargain hunters, like electronics and computers, I feel poorly served. It would be great to find a few examples of well constructed, easy to search tech sites that work. Everyone I found was sorely lacking in a crucial quality to help me get through the process without a problem. Either they don’t reflect stock levels, if they disclose them at all, many have risible search features, ignore people who want to by several related items at once, (if you’re buying a computer, you might also want to get a printer, some blank DVDs for archives, and some cabling, for example) and otherwise forget all the rules of salesmanship online. And don’t get me started on ludicrous payment gateways that ask me to read an email and transfer funds with a special code and wait 5 days for the process to complete. yeesh!

That’s why I came here. The market is ripe for people with courage to start considering selling online, in particular small specialist shops in city centres who are happy to supply to remote areas in exchange for a creditcard payment. Looking forward to helping you all buy when You want to buy. Th tide is turning, and I look forward to helping those who really do want to engage with their customers, and give them an experience that they will want to return to and reccommend.