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Published on December 15th, 2008 | by Rahel Bailie


Year-end thoughts on user experience

As the field of user experience progresses, so does the way we handle our research: 32% said This, and as a result, we conclude That. Though we realize that we must “know thy user, as it is not thou” (David Platt, author of Why Software Sucks), our own experience level makes us vulnerable to assuming things about our audience members.

Every so often, it’s good to get a big dose of reality. The last few months, I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling, and that has brought its own share of reality checks for me, though I generally understand what’s behind the problem and can find a work-around. The most common problem has been IP address detection, which wreaks havoc on users trying to access services because of “geo-fencing” to block users from other countries. It’s a sloppy way for organizations to operate, convenient for them but not for their consumers. It’s one thing to be locked out of your favourite TV show, or a music account (though software such as iTunes can figure out which store I’m allowed to buy from, despite my location anywhere in the world, it seems – they have it figured out). It’s quite another getting locked out of your bank account, or not being able to top up your skype account because the options presented to you are for the European banking system.

My dose of reality often comes in the form of my best friend, whose interaction with software is so far away from mine that she sometimes marvels that we find enough common ground to remain friends. She is university-educated, and in the age group where some people “get” technology and to others, it remains a mystery. With her permission, I am posting an email of hers that is a spontaneous description of a typical user experience for her:

I am another person who struggles with the way that technology has ruined my life. Oh I recognize all the amazing things that “progress” has done for us and I certainly am doing my best to stay afloat in a sea of constant advancement.

For example, today. I tried in vain to get the phone number of a business that does not list in the Yellow pages from a directory assistance operator, that is apparently. . . in the Philippines. Unfortunately she can’t make out what I am asking for. I try to enunciate carefully several times, and then go for spelling. She doesn’t know if I am saying “s” or “f:.

Finally she tells me her computer shows only three locations in Vancouver and they are all on the same street. Not the street I need. I end up phoning a random number from the group of numbers listed–at least I think someone there will give me the number of the location I want. Instead I get a series of recorded commercials– some horrible music– more commercials, then a menu that asks me to dial the extension of the person I want. I don’t want any particular person. I just want to know if they carry my brand of Magnesium supplements. I choose the extension of a Martha Hernandez. whoever she is. Apparently she is not at her desk. What desk? I thought I was phoning a health food store. I am asked to leave a message. Hmm?

I fantasize. You want a message? I will leave you a message. Ok! Hi Martha you don’t know me but my name is ___ and I want to find out if you carry Nu Life Magnesium in the 400mg size? Oh Martha please get back to me. My phone number is__, my email is__, my address is__, my Social Insurance Number is ___, my weight and height are__. I am female. I live in Canada. Please hurry, Martha phone me back. I am very fond of this particular product Martha and since phoning the Philippines has not actually allowed me to find out the proper phone number I am about to drop into a dangerously depressed mood swing. Help me, Martha. I need you. I hope they still carry it, Martha! because so much time is passing. A life time is passing. Martha. My lifetime. They probably have stopped making this product in the time it is taking to find out if you have it.

Any way, don’t worry. I decide against leaving such a message and instead I decide to visit the web site. Unfortunately I have to sign on to access the menu and get myself a password, etc. I then come to a drop-down menu that lists every store in the known universe. Jeez Louise!! I just want to phone a nearby store to find out if they carry something. I am not trying to sell a screen play to Oprah. I am not trying to phone the Pentagon. I am not applying for citizenship in Dubai. Why is it this so complicated? I end up walking down the five or so blocks to a drugstore nearby. They had what I wanted. A huge amount of it, actually, and it was on sale. I am now happy. Anyway sorry for this spontaneous burst of storytelling.

I just wanted to share that I feel your pain, ___. I understand what irks you but, sadly, perhaps you are asking too much from your phone provider to give you a detailed printed account of why you have to pay the charges they are demanding. Oh Just pay them. Whatever it is. Come on, ____. Be reasonable. We have to catch up with the times.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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