Impolite UX: Everyday examples in big name eCommerce… and how to avoid it

The treatment of paying customers in these examples would be questionable (and at times unacceptable) in high street commerce. 
Yet most online consumers simply accept rude salesmen. 
If you run / design / work on an online shop, you are probably guilty of some of this customer treatment. 
This is an appeal for more polite shopping experiences.

Where are we today?

An interface needs to communicate with the person who is interacting with it.
The communication covers, of course, many aspects.
Not long ago, we’d buy thing in various shops on the high street.
We’d have a dialogue with a sales agent about a product or an object.
We’d talk about whether the “whatever it is” suits us, available colours, quality etc.
We’d talk about alternatives and/or if something offers better value for money, for example a different brand or traveling on a different day etc.
And if the desired product was out of stock, they’d do their best to complete the sale, by offering, where possible, to have the “whatever it is” sent.
Sales agents would try their best to please their customers.

Tomorrow’s shopping interfaces

Tomorrow’s modern interfaces will need to communicate & replicate that entire service dialogue.
Think of the interface as one side of a dialogue.
The sales agent / interface will need to communicate with the customer.
And in that dialogue, the interface will ask things and the customer will
respond & request things.
And the sales agent interface will respond to and honour those requests.
A high quality dialogue is one way for a shop to achieve loyalty among it consumers and to be viewed as more than just another online outlet whose only redeeming characteristic is that it’s cheaper.

There’s something missing

In the last few weeks, I made two trips (one on business and the other for pleasure). I booked tickets and bought a few other things… and all of those purchases were made online. In several of those purchases, I couldn’t help notice that the dialogue was robotic (in the worst sense of the word). It often left me, the customer, with work to do to “work out” what to do next.

And a few situations were exasperated by dumb defaults and fall-back technical trickery.
Don’t get me wrong, I think smart defaults are just that… smart.
But dumb defaults are, well… just plain stupid.
It seems the concept of service has been forgotten or, at best, a little skewed.
Could it be something as simple as the shopping sector has forgotten just what polite means.

My two trips took me to Palermo (Italy) and Paris (France). In addition to the flight tickets, I bought some shoes, a couple of shirts and a ticket to visit the Eiffel Tower.

Without further ado, let’s get into the mistakes and take a look at the rude salesmen… we’ll start with British Airways:

BA — British Airways

Step 1 of 2

1. I’m in London, 2. going to Pal (ermo), 3. I hear Bogota’s nice, 4. back in London

Although I’m based in Germany, the BA website assumed I was in London, UK (that may have been the result of a previous search — too long ago to remember — or simply a lack of IP address reading).
So I told the interface that I’d like to fly from Munich, Germany (actually I’m based in Berlin but this trip was from Munich).
It asked for the first three letters of my destination, so I typed in Pal (as in Palermo).
It asked and I told it when I wished to fly and I selected the number of seats, then hit “Find flights”.
And I saw my first disappointment… the screen said “We don’t fly there… how about Colombia?”
That’s Colombia as in South America?!
My choices were “Start again” or “Continue”.
I was forced to start all over again.
Immediately I saw my second disappointment… not only was I starting all over again but I was starting on a completely different page (jargon: I was disorientated) and from a different starting point (the next sales agent interface also thought I was in London, UK).
And the new sales agent interface knew nothing about the number of passengers.
It was little consolation that it remembered the dates I had selected.
So, I was forced to select it all again and type in “Palermo”.

Low hanging fruit for BA — Step 1 of 2

1., Read the customers IP address and pre-select as much as possible the country & city.
2., Evaluate recent previous searches and align with customer’s current IP address.
3., Remove the “type the first three letters” because it doesn’t work… your auto-completion will kick in when and if it recognises something, and that might be after five letters, that might be never.
4., Don’t force your customer to re-type everything in the event of a restart.
Doing that causes frustration & irritation and is comparable to… let’s say I need help over the phone and have explained a situation to a telephone support person, who then passes me over to a colleague and I need to explain the situation all over again.

Step 2 of 2

1. no flights on my day, 2. why the highlight?, 3. OK, take the cheapest, 4. I thought I had chosen, 5. select one of one

My search results page (SRP) was difficult to read… it was jam packed with information.
I was lost for a few seconds.
There was one single match for the outbound flight.
The inbound flight on the other hand was topped by a helpful error message… “No flights on your preferred day, here are flight on the nearest day to your choice”.
So I chose from some possible alternative return flights and hit “Continue”.
And promptly received another error message.
Although I didn’t realise it (since the sales agent interface didn’t tell me), I actually needed to select that single outbound flight from the list of one matching flight!

Low hanging fruit for BA — 2 of 2

1., Don’t assume that normal end customers are versed in reading the Amadeus software (or Sabre or Gabriel or whatever flight booking software you’re using… some people I know who work in the travel industry get taught how to use the booking software, a luxury that end consumers don’t have).
2., Don’t overload your SRPs… identify the small amount of information customers need to make their decision and remove the rest or, even better, hide the rest behind a link.
3., Pre-select the one flight where the list consists of only one flight (duh!).

Planet Sports

1. button to choose size, 2. I’m a “M”, 3. an identical button to choose size, 4. is this list broken?

I wanted a casual shirt for travelling.
I found this striped one in blue.
And selected my size as “M” or medium.
Then I tried to buy the same shirt in grey (or is that gray?).
The sales agent interface only let me choose between “S” and ”XL”.
Since it’s possible that the page didn’t load properly, I reloaded the page and tried again.
No change.
I concluded that the sales agent interface was trying to tell me that “M” was not available, and nether was “L” nor “XXL”.

Low hanging fruit for Planet Sports

1., Reduce the cognitive friction by telling your customers when something is not available… don’t assume that everyone will come to the correct conclusion (in this case I’m thinking of a greyed out, non-selectable “M — too late, sold out”).


1. colour choice is easy, 2. size choice is just as easy, 3. you do want the grey, don’t you?

I choose a red polo shirt for my holidays.
And selected my size as “US Small (Asia Large)” which I thought would be closest to a European medium.
And I was shocked to see that Amazon’s sales agent interface simply changed my preferred colour to grey.

Low hanging fruit for Amazon

1., Don’t let your customers choose something which is not available. Swapping the desired red shirt for a grey one, without asking, is not only presumptuous but also akin to… hmmm, there’s no comparable situation in the real world. Let’s try this… say I’m in a grocery store like Amazon Go and I’ve put a bottle of my favourite orange juice into my basket. Then a store employee walks past and without asking, removes my orange juice and swaps it for a bottle of grapefruit juice. 
If you insist on treating customers like that, they will learn to distrust you.

Ralph Lauren

1. not all that clear which sizes are available and aren’t, 2. tuns out, mine’s not available

For walking about, I looked for some light, soft shoes.
I found these in beige.
I tried to choose my size.
An error message appeared.
But I didn’t get it, I didn’t see the error message… the error message was placed in a very unconventional spot on the page and my hand was covering it.
It turned out, the sales agent interface was just too reserved & restrained. Once found however, his message was both polite & helpful… “Sorry, not available. Give us your eMail and we’ll tell you when they’re in stock.”

Low hanging fruit for Ralph Lauren

Although I believe it’s better to avoid the situation by not permitting customers to choose something which is not available, I see that RL is trying to offer a helpful service.
1., If RL’s marketing dept. wishes to collect eMails from customers, then make the system feedback more noticeable (here I’m thinking of an easy to implement modal overlay with that polite & helpful message “Sorry, not avail… …when they’re in stock” with an easy-to-find way of closing the modal should the customer not wish to be notified).


1. the choose size button’s easy to find, 2. I can even buy “sold out” shoes, 3. ah,… wrong! sold out means sold out

I was forced to look elsewhere for some walking shoes and found these.
Also here, I tried to choose my size.
I was presented with a drop-up list to choose my size… unfortunately, everything in this sales agent’s interface was set in one single font (same weight & same colour).
Setting a list like that makes the list hard work to digest (jargon: cognitive load)… and in the end, it turned out that my size was not available.

Low hanging fruit for Zalando

Although I can’t really see any sense in letting a customer choose something which is out of stock, it is possible with your interface.
And I can see that Zalando is half-heartily providing information on availability.
1., However, Zalando should go one step further and set all items which are sold-out to greyed out and make them non-selectable.
2., Alternatively, make it clear that there’s a “when it’s back in stock” eMail service.

Get Your Guide

1. 9:30am is no good for us, 2. we’d prefer 10:30am, 3. just add this to the cart, 4. there you go, 9:30am like you wished

Since you can’t go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, I found an activity that seemed good for us as a family.
I hit the button “Show availability” so that the sales agent interface could show me the various options.
I changed the pre-selected time of 9:30am to the more humane and family orientated time of 10:30am… there was no way that 4 of us could get up on time, have a luxurious hotel breakfast and still get somewhere in a foreign city by 9:30am.
Then I added my family, 2x adults and 2x children.
The only thing left to do was hit “Add to Cart” which I promptly did.
For some unknown reason, Get Your Guide’s sales agent interface added four tickets for 9:30am to my cart.

Low hanging fruit for Get Your Guide

This is exactly the same weakness which Amazon demonstrates.
1., If, for whatever reason, your interface lets customers choose something which is not available, tell them it is not available. Then let them make a decision. Swapping the desired item (in this case, the 10:30am activity) for one that happens to be available (in this case, the 9:30am activity) without asking, is not only presumptuous but also likely to lead to much confusion… imagine what would happen if we were to show up at 10:30am as purchased. 
You can’t treat customers like that! 
They will only learn to distrust you.

What’s going wrong in the above examples?

The dialogue with the sales agent interface is missing some bits. And is often presumtuous. 
To help you understand the importance of the dialogue with a salesman or sales agent interface, I’d like you to imagine this simple milk shake scenario…

Imagine you’re in a fast-food place and you ask for a vanilla milk shake (which I love).
But in this scenario, vanilla’s not available that day.
So without uttering a word, they give you a chocolate milk shake instead (which I hate).

There are two possible reactions to the chocolate shake, both very human.
First; Just by chance, it might be that you like chocolate milk shakes and are OK with that presumptuous behaviour.
Second; It’s much more likely that you would appreciate some feedback (“Sorry, no vanilla today… how about chocolate or strawberry?”) and the chance to choose something else.

This little scenario effectively demonstrates the answer to the question “What’s going wrong?”.
There are three parts to the answer, all with a little overlap:
1., It goes wrong if decisions are made for you (a smart default is not a decision, it’s a suggestion).
2., It goes wrong if there’s no dialogue.
3., It goes wrong if you receive something you didn’t order.

Why should these changes be made?

Never forget, only 5% — 8% of the adult population are computer savvy. Yes! that’s 8% at the most who are able to perform simple tasks — read the recent report from the NN Group, dated end of 2016.

Also, consumers’ behaviour & feelings aren’t so different in the online world.
It’s not always just a question of convenience, price and availability (although they do, admittedly, have a lot going for them).
Consumers prefer to make their own decisions (but are open to suggestions).

The challenge in eCommerce is countering the lack of simple, courteous service and presumptuous decision making. The challenge is to reproduce the type of treatment which we all know from high street commerce.
Respect your customer and honour their requests.

Writing code that works, in the sense of not broken, is simply not sufficient.
Working code is a hygiene factor… that’s the very least that a sales agent interface needs to provide!
Resorting to a technically feasible alternative without communicating with a customer, is the equivalent of sleight of hand.
And sleight of hand is good if you’re a magician or a performer in the circus.
But sleight of hand is out of place both in high street commerce and eCommerce.
All eCommerce platforms who presume to know their customers wishes (and therefore don’t ask) are on thin ice… they’re weighing trust & reliabilty against distrust & irritation. That’s like reputation vs. greed (don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an issue with making money & being paid for a service).

The customer is still king… treat her/him accordingly.
Use the milk shake scenario above to check whether you’re treating your customers the same way you would like to be treated.


Thanks for the read!

If you would like me to look at your website or app, just shoot me an email at beck (at) beck-button (dot) de or go to the contact page on my website or, if you prefer, connect via Linked-In.