Sunday, May 28, 2006


What you say to another human does not have to be perfect. There is a lot of redundancy in face-to-face communication. This helps the listener to check what you are saying for consistency and to ask for clarifications when necessary. But this comfort is not there when a website talks to millions of customers a year. I will describe a recent (bad) experience below. My focus will not be on the hassles I encountered except to illustrate what goes wrong. I feel that a good body of literature is available for helping us to design good websites and to test existing ones. I suggest that a good project could focus on what is wrong with a few heavily used websites, and provide suggestions to the companies concerned to improve them. A dissertation could cover the principles and techniques involved in evaluating websites and illustrate them with examples of existing problems with well-known websites.

Now to my experience. I recently flew a certain airline, which encourages passengers to do online check-in over the Internet. The biggest incentive offered is that you can save almost an hour of waiting in a long queue by doing your own check-in and printing of your own boarding card. But after the experience, I doubt the value of this incentive. I spent more time on the Internet than I would have spent in the queue. The hassles I faced are:

a) The rules were not clear. Failures were not explained properly. After three hours of trying and several phone calls they finally revealed to me that I could not do online check-in on my return journey though I had done it on the forward journey. I will discuss the reason later in the following paragraphs.
b) The website repeatedly told me “Our servers are not responding; please try later”, while it should have said, “You are not eligible for online check-in as you do not have an electronic ticket”. Online check-in is permitted by this airline to “cattle class” customers like me only within 24 hours of the departure. So to be told to try later causes great frustration with the deadline for check-in getting closer and closer.
c) I could have normally asked for an aisle seat over the phone. I tried to do this after waiting till online check-in was thrown open (24 hours before the flight) and then failing to succeed in this for an unknown reason. But the person on the toll-free number told me that a “general seat request” was not possible within 24 hours of the flight. Well, that is what they call a Catch-22! Neither could I select my own seat, nor could I ask any other human being.
Now to the hidden reason why the airline’s website tortured me for hours. The people I reached by calling the given toll-free number merely kept telling me to “try later”. Finally, I demanded to speak to the supervisor. The lady asked, “How would it help you? He would tell you the same thing as I am telling you. Bu I insisted, and she said, “Well, it might waste waiting for 10 minutes to speak to him”. I persisted and listened to some unwanted music for about 5 minutes, at the end of which got to speak to the supervisor. He now found out that I was not eligible for online check-in because they had converted my electronic ticket mid-way on the way forward to a printed ticket. Yes, they had done that. But why was every one ignorant of this rule, except the supervisor? And, why did the website not tell me this?
Let me go on a flash back now. On the way out from Bangalore, the flight was late in reaching the destination and I had to miss the connecting flight. They re-routed me to my destination to send me through some available flight. That is why I was downgraded from an electronic ticket holder to a mere mortal.
To close this part of the story, let me suggest that a few people should read literature on the subject. I will list a couple of them below.

Now to the second part of my travails. After all this, I got on the flight home and again the flight was delayed due to some electrical fault that took time to fix. There was the risk of missing the connecting flight to Bangalore again. I talked to the staff at the counter who said that staff at the connecting location would take care of me. Again I demanded to see the manager, and I told him that the “staff at the connecting location had not done a thing to help me on the outward trip. I suggested that he should send a message ahead to ask that arriving passengers should be met on arrival by staff, who should help in negotiating the one-hour foot-and-bus journey between the arriving terminal and the departing terminal at the connecting location. He said that if there were a chance that I could make it to the connecting flight, the staff would inform me what to do. Well, what if there was no chance of my making it to the connecting flight? He did not say anything. I knew the answer from my experience. I would then do the one-hour trip to the “departing terminal”, find the flight gone and do the return one-hour trip to find some other flight going somewhere. Meanwhile my checked in baggage would travel as per its own free will!

What is the moral? It is not that we merely run lousy websites. We have lousy practices even without the Internet! When you deal with millions of people a year, it requires some good technology and a number of good design principles to ensure that they are not treated like cattle!


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