Is anyone thinking about the users?

Everyone once in a while (okay, maybe more often than that), I’ll see some piece of crappy user interface design and have a private little rant about it. Since I’ve been designing UI since back before it was called “user experience”, and am a heavy user of a large number of systems with different UI’s, I have some idea of what works and what doesn’t work.

Often, this happens when I’m in a retail environment and the store employee is fighting through a variety of screens to achieve what should be a common and easily-accessible task: I really have the sense that the software designers didn’t bother to consider usability because they knew that the users would be trained on the software, that is, it’s not web-based consumer software that can be abandoned in favour of a different communications channel, it’s a part of the person’s job and they must learn to use it.

Occasionally, this does happen with web-based software that I use as a consumer, such as banking websites. When I used to travel almost full-time for business, I got in the habit of doing everything online: if a supplier (bank, phone, whatever) couldn’t give me a way to check and pay my account online, then I went elsewhere. That philosophy has done well for me over the years, and I still stick by it. I bank with one of the large Canadian banks, and I was commenting yesterday on how there are some really stupid, albeit minor, design flaws in their “account download” screens that make me do a few extra clicks every day when I download my account information. They might think that a few clicks don’t mean much, but I used to design UI for transaction processing staff at financial institutions, and we squeezed every keystroke out in order to maximize the efficiency of that particular factor. Why can’t web UI designers consider that some (many?) of the users are concerned about efficiency, want to use the least possible keystrokes — and even less mouse movements — in order to do “chores” such as online banking. I just want to get in, download the transactions and get out as quickly as possible, I have no desire to linger on their site and check out some fancy UI widget.

Although I’m not picking on this particular bank, because every bank that I have dealt with has similar (or worse) problems, I have a few other bones to pick with their systems people. I applied for a registered investment account online with them recently, but because I was transferring in assets from another institution, I took the completed application form to the bank instead of mailing it in, so that I could get the account number right away and initiate the transfer. Although the application was retrievable by me online with its unique ID, the person at the bank who assisted me had to key in all the information over again because there is no way for him to pull up the already-completed application form from their own systems and complete the account opening. Total waste of my time (if I had know that, I wouldn’t have spent the time online completing the app in the first place, then had to wait while he re-keyed it) and total waste of the bank’s employee’s time, which costs them money and customer goodwill.

The latest in the continuing saga came this morning, in response to my request that they discontinue my monthly brokerage statements by snail mail since I’ve been downloading the PDF versions from their website for more than three years:

Regrettably, due to our current internal platform, we do not offer the option to discontinue paper-based statements. However, this feature is on our agenda for consideration for future system enhancements.

Waste of paper, waste of energy printing the statements, damage to the environment from the trucks used to ship all this paper around, waste of my time opening and shredding the statement, and again, loss of customer goodwill. All this from a bank that rakes in a couple of billion in profits every year.

What is all adds up to is IT departments that are not focussed on their customers’ needs, whether these are internal or external customers. With so many people using the systems created by these IT departments, how can they continue to justify the philosophy that the users will just put up with bad software? Most IT departments don’t even think about the fact that the business side of the organization is their customer, as well as potentially external customers, and if they don’t service those customers adequately then they may find themselves outsourced out of existence.

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