Booking cottages – lessons for ecommerce

Help your customer

Small things can make a difference as to whether a customer ends up spending money with you. Sometimes a small missing item of information that the site owner doesn’t think is important would have made the difference. Sometimes it’s just making the search function a bit more easy to use.

I have a dog. Sometimes, we go to pubs. Some pubs don’t allow dogs at all, some allow them outside, some inside. Some pub web sites state whether dogs are allowed or not, but many don’t. Whether they are or aren’t I’m not the only one who will have that question. Help your customer.

Searching for cottages

I want to book at cottage for about a week in the UK. I have the following requirements.

  • 4 adults
  • 1 dog
  • 2 bathrooms
  • near a pub
  • start on Sunday, return on Saturday

I went to Best of Suffolk.

Best of Suffolk search bar

The initial search on Best of Suffolk has limited parameters, which is ok if there is some good post-search filtering. There’s always a tension between making a search form really easy to start with but you then have to filter, versus more questions but more relevant results. One simple thing that the site doesn’t do is cookie the search parameters. This means that if you come back to the home page to start a new search you have to enter everything again from scratch. Best practice with just about any search is to pre-populate the last search so that people can just adjust what they need, and to use a persistent cookie so you can come back another time and pick up from where you left off.

Sykes Cottages has a few more parameters, which I find useful, and it’s not so many that it’s off-putting.  Being able to state the flexibility of your search date is especially useful. However, they don’t cookie the parameters either.

Sykes Cottages booking panel

Filtering results

Back at Best of Suffolk the initial display of search results is quite good. There are large pictures of each property, and some of the key features are displayed as icons and text allowing you to quickly identify those you might be interested in.

Best of Suffolk search result detail

However, there’s no mention of proximity to pubs, and I want a tailored list. There’s a slide-open filter section at the top of the results. They are nice big icons, again with text. Pubs and pets are included, and one of the options is a swimming pool. It’s not a requirement, but why not have a look? So I include that too.

Best of Suffolk filters

However, when I set these filters there are no results (although it doesn’t actually say that). The obvious thing to do is to de-select the swimming pool filter. Yet when I go to the filter panel, all of the filters have apparently already been de-selected. Users will often try different combinations of filters and sometimes won’t recall what the last combination was that they tried, so this just makes it a lot more work. This is basic stuff. I also can’t filter on the number of bathrooms, which most other cottage sites do allow.

It gets worse. Here is what the filters look like after an unsuccessful search. The original search parameters are there, and no filters are selected. I want to get the original set of results back so just click ‘search’. No results. What I suspect is happening is that the filters actually are selected, but not shown as selected. It’s desperately poor work. Doesn’t anyone check this stuff?

Best of Suffolk filters

Sykes have a more traditional filter panel to the left of the cottage listings. You can always see what options are selected. Each time you add a filter the page refreshes. Many sites do this, but there are two factors that make it awkward here. Firstly it’s slow, and secondly the page reloads to the top each time, forcing you to scroll down and re-locate the filters again.  It’s quite laborious to set a number of filters. Functionally at least it works but the experience could be better.

Sykes filter panel

Dates and pricing

I start again from the home page on Best of Suffolk and persist enough to find a property that I’m interested in, but there’s further frustration ahead. Although I’ve searched on specific dates for 4 people I have to enter the information again on the property page. The calendar defaults to the current month even though I entered dates in May. I don’t really see why anyone should have to persevere with this.

Best of Suffolk date picker

When I move the calendar to May I find that there are changeover days, and you can only stay for seven days. I don’t understand the business well enough to know why this is necessary – I get that it’s more efficient if you sell out, but it could unnecessarily constrain sales. What would make sense here would be a message that you could pick other dates, and they’d get back to you if the owner accepted (especially sensible if it’s close to the date and the property might remain empty). They could at least suggest that you phone if you want other dates. But they don’t.

Best of Suffolk date picker

Despite the good visual design, layout, and well-written content, the functional experience is enough to put customers off. I did try to reach out to someone who I think is a founder of Best of Suffolk on Twitter, to give feedback, but didn’t get a response.

By contrast, Sykes lets you specify your own dates. On the date picker, an ‘arrival date’ is still marked, and it’s not immediately clear what the meaning of this is. As shown in the image below I’m planning to arrive on the 3rd and leave on the 9th, and the 4th is a changeover day. After some playing around, I think if your stay spans two weeks with an ‘arrival date’ sometime during your stay then you pay for two weeks. The cottages are priced by the week, rather than by the day as hotels are. Given that that’s how the system operates at least Sykes lets me do what I want if I’m prepared to pay for it. An additional customer-friendly enhancement here would be a message saying ‘if you arrive one day later, you will save £x’.

Sykes date picker

Other issues

There are a number of sites selling cottage rentals, as you might expect. The likes of booking.com, Expedia, and Air BnB get in on the act, and they appear to have some of the same technical constraints imposed by the way the business works. Whether these are technical constraints or commercial process I don’t know.

There are pluses and minuses across sites.

A common frustration is being forced to choose one specific geographical area. This example is from cottages.com. If I want to choose Cornwall and Devon, I can’t. I have to do a search on each on individually. This can be solved by using tick boxes which would allow for multiple selections. Often when I’m using filters and there’s a long list I would rather be able to exclude one or two, rather than include lots, but I rarely find this function offered.

A nice touch on the Original Cottages site is the ability to filter by drive time from home to the cottage. However, it doesn’t work. When I first tried it I got a swirly thing indicating something was happening, and it didn’t go away. I had to refresh the page to make it stop. More recently it just results in no search results, whatever length of drive I enter.

Original Cottages distance filter

The wrap up

So there you have it. As with many usability issues the good and the bad aren’t specific to cottages. If you’re in the business think about how you can strike the right balance between initial search parameters and filters. Do you cookie the search parameters, and are you thinking about the dimensions most meaningful and relevant to your customers? Also, it’s not just about making sure that a customer can add something to a basket and press ‘buy now’ – you have to look at what happens if they want to change their mind in the process. And, quite simply, just make sure it works. How could anyone not do that?

Lloyds needs to link its databases to avoid a bad customer experience

I’ve just had one of those experiences that sadly fails to surprise. I have a Lloyds Bank credit card, and in attempting to do an online transaction with it, was presented with the Click Safe authentication screen. This told me that I would be sent an SMS message with a code that I should enter on the next screen.

Lloyds credit card

The problem was that the code was going to be sent to my old mobile number. Several months ago when I changed my mobile number I had logged in to my card account and updated it. Maybe it had regressed? I’ve checked but my online account was up to date. Clearly Lloyds have separate databases holding customer information, and they don’t always talk to each other. It’s the sort of incredibly annoying thing that still happens.

My penalty for being in this situation was that I had to phone the euphemistically named Customer Services, never something I’ve looked forward to with Lloyds.

I had to speak to three people, which included a gap in between the second and third where I was told I would have to wait at least ten minutes, and I could phone back another time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve called when they haven’t been ‘extremely busy’.

Of course, I had to explain the issue three times. All of the staff tried to be helpful and polite. The last chap had to take me through some laborious authentication questions, and then told me that he’d updated the system to authorise the transaction I was trying to make, and he’d updated my phone number. I should wait five minutes, then try the transaction again.

I waited more than five minutes, and tried again.

Transaction error message

I was told that the authorisation had been declined by the bank.

I waited, and tried again. Same result.

I phoned again, and although this time I check to use a number specifically for credit cards, I still had to be put through to ‘credit cards’ after explaining the problem.

The chap on the phone then explained to me that the problem was with the expiry date of the card. I guess that the error message couldn’t have told me that, as it would help someone who was trying to make a fraudulent transaction. I was using a password protection tool to auto-fill my card details, and although the information in the database is correct, it was appearing incorrectly on the payment form, and I hadn’t noticed. I still don’t know why that happens. I tried again with the correct information, and this time it worked.

There are a couple of take-outs.

Firstly, there’s no excuse for the lack of a joined-up view of the customer by Lloyds. When I updated my account online with my new phone number, it should automatically feed into whatever Click Safe uses.

Then there’s the inevitable transferring of calls, and the need to explain the problem multiple times. There has to be a better way.

It’s not all down to the business though. I did submit incorrect information when I tried again. I didn’t check, and if anyone had asked me, I would have insisted that I had entered the correct information. I know from experience on both sides of the fence that people will often swear blind that they did or didn’t do something online, only for the system logs to prove differently. People can look very sheepish when presented with the evidence, but that’s how people are. It’s not acting in bad faith. We’re fallible creatures who don’t always understand our own motives, and who don’t notice what actions we take. As far as possible, it’s the job of UX (and CX offline) to mitigate the impacts.

If you ask for ideas, make sure you feed back

Have you ever taken part in an idea-generation session, and heard nothing more about it? I would guess that applies to many of you. It’s a good way of turning people off, and generating a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.

Generating ideas

There are great ideas lurking in many peoples’ heads that just need an audience. Some people are good at talking – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the best ideas. If you have an idea session, the extroverts will be clambering over each other to get their thoughts aired, whilst the introverts will be sitting at the back having a good think. It’s generally a good idea to let people know in advance if you want ideas.

There are a few situations that I think of in relation to idea generation. One is within the context of a project. Maybe you’re working on a design for a new interface, and want some critique of what you’ve done so far. An approach here is to stick up the designs on the walls, and leave pens and sticky notes around so that people can leave their thoughts. If you also post up a change log with revised designs, then those contributors can see what, if anything, became of their ideas. It provides them with reinforcement to want to contribute some more. It’s a good idea as well to list those ideas that won’t be implemented. It helps people to know that although their idea won’t be adopted, that it has nevertheless been thought about. It also helps them to understand more about the context of use, so that their subsequent suggestions can be more relevant.

Another idea-gathering context occurs when an organisation has time out, such as an away day or business unit forum. Maybe there are some business presentations, and then, to get more ‘engagement’, everyone is invited to come up with good ideas either singly or in groups, and then to present these back. There might be some voting for the best ideas, or management will gather them up for consideration.

I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of value from these efforts. It does get people talking and thinking about things which is good, but generally the follow up has been lacking. Companies don’t typically have a lot of spare resource, in time or money or people, and so if new ideas are presented, then something else has to stop in order for them to be implemented. Some companies may be better than others at this, but it takes effort to review, compare, persuade, change course. And so the initial enthusiasm gets lost in the daily grind. For it to stand a better chance, one or more individuals should have responsibility for getting the ideas properly assessed – and it should be in their objectives. Those individuals could be at different levels in the organisation – they don’t have to be senior, and it can be a good development opportunity. If they are junior though, they should have a senior sponsor who takes the role seriously.

This lack of feedback and visible impact causes demotivation and cynicism over time. When I started at British Airways as a young developer, I enthusiastically joined in a Process Improvement Plan workshop. I remember well one of the old hands shrugging his shoulders, saying he’d seen it before, nothing ever happened, but at least he’d join in and help. I thought it was a poor attitude. Years later I found myself in the role of the old hand offering similar views, the result of having been through the mill many times.

Yet positive things can happen. When I was UX Manager at BA, a colleague and I went to the contact centres in the UK and the USA to get feedback. We wanted to know what the agents thought of ba.com. We wanted to know what we could improve so that customers wouldn’t be phoning them up with complaints or problems that the agents didn’t even know existed. The contact centre management set us up with different groups, and we sat round a table to talk about what the issues were. We had assumed that there would be some common themes, but were surprised at how diverse the problems were – different by geography and also the role of the agent. The one thing that was common across the groups was the sense of cynicism, that they’d all been through this process before, and nothing ever happened.

My colleague and I documented all of the issues – not just some – on a spreadsheet. We took it back to base, and sat down with the rest of the management team, and agreed who would be responsible for fixing which issues. We also agreed that for various reasons, some were unlikely to be fixed, and we recorded it all in the spreadsheet. As we made progress with fixes, we periodically shared the spreadsheet, warts and all, with the contact centre staff. The response was incredible. People were so happy that we’d actually really listened to them, that we were actually doing something about it, and that we were letting them know about it. Even the old hands got enthusiastic.

This isn’t rocket science.

  • If you want ideas, let people know in advance
  • Provide a forum or method that lets everyone have their say, not just the loudmouths
  • Ensure someone has responsibility for gathering and feeding back
  • Immediately feed back on what the ideas were (and make sure you don’t place your own interpretation on someone else’s idea)
  • Feed back on progress to appropriate timescales
  • If you’re not going to do anything with the ideas, don’t ask in the first place

Tips for effective informational content

What’s the issue?

There are books you can read and sites to explore about good writing for the web. Yet I still see so many of the basic guidelines being broken.

It’s important to note that what counts as good writing will vary according to context. A good marketing blurb that gets you excited about a product or travel destination will usually differ in style from straight factual information, which may again vary from the way that functional error messages are written. On top that those contexts, writers often have to factor in a Brand tone of voice. Is it formal, or playful, or quirky? As you move along the scale from inspirational to factual there is generally less opportunity to bring in a tone of voice – but some brands do. Bringing in tone of voice often means that you need more words and a turn of phrase that can get in the way of clarity, which needs to take precedence.

There are exceptions, but generally when you get to facts, people just want the punchy facts, and then they want to leave. You might get an amusing error message, and it can work. It can also become annoying.

In this post I’m looking at the middle ground where you want to present factual information. You want to make it easy for people to find the information that’s relevant to them, and present it in a way that is unambiguous as far as possible. It’s not a completely comprehensive list of dos and don’ts (that would be a  book).

Use bullets

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that people don’t read websites or apps like they read novels. Users have a goal – they’re not there for the pleasure of your prose. They scan, looking for the cues and keywords that relate to their goal. If the information that you want to impart is a series of individual facts, then structure it as bullets, don’t write it into a sentence.

Here’s a small example from the Theatre Royal Windsor.

Paragraph from Theatre Royal

This would be better structured as three bullet points – and it doesn’t then need the ‘please note’. ‘Drink’ doesn’t need to be capitalised, and it can be more friendly. For example –

  • You are welcome to bring in water with you, but otherwise food and other drinks may not be brought in.
  • Safety is a priority, so we reserve the right to search bags and packages.
  • Rucksacks, suitcases and large holdalls are not allowed in the auditorium (it would be useful to add if there is a holding area for bags)

British Airways had a promotion. Here were the rules.

BA promotion terms

It’s quite hard to scan that paragraph, and pick out the rules in a way that you can get your head round. It would be better as follows:-

Improved BA layout

Some of the unnecessary verbosity is tidied up. Now it’s ‘We have great fares in all our cabins’ rather than ‘There’s great fares in both premium and non-premium cabins’. The original makes you stop and think. The new version also makes it a lot easier to pick out the relevant dates.

Reading Arts has a page on venue hire. Here’s a grab of some of it:-

Reading Arts venue hire

It would help the reader if some of that first paragraph was broken into bullet points, and then you could see at a glance that there are three venues available for hire. Other aspects of this page are also worthy of comment.

Why on earth is there a link to download venue logos? I don’t know their business, but as a prospective hirer, it doesn’t seem relevant. And the link just seems to be plonked on the page at random. It doesn’t relate to any of the other content, and immediately follows some text telling me to follow the links to find out more. It takes the user to a page full of logos.

Also, there is no explanation of what the four pictures are of – even if you click on them. And although there are three venues (apparently), there are only links to two of them, under an odd heading of ‘related content’. I don’t think it’s ‘related’ content. It IS the content. This page needs some work.

Make sure it’s understandable English (or whatever the language is)

Maersk, the shipping company, have some ‘important information’ for customers. Here’s an example:-

Maersk important information

This has clearly been written by someone who does not have English as their first language, and it hasn’t been checked. This can matter. Even if someone can get the gist of it, it’s hard work. Many times I’ve agonised over nuances of wording, and sometimes people challenge me as to why I’m worrying so much over some minor point of detail. The reason is that to the customer this might be the most important thing they read, and those nuances can really matter. It’s easy to be lazy and write copy that has unintentional ambiguity, and you might never know it. If I say ‘loyalty scheme members must go to gate A’, does that mean only loyalty scheme members can go to gate A ? It doesn’t say, so it’s ambiguous.

Limit line length

If the user is reading your content on a mobile device, this isn’t an issue. If someone has designed for mobile first, and not thought too much about the presentation on desktop, then it’s easy to let line length run amok, although it also happens on non-responsive sites. This is an example from Manchester Airport.

Manchester airport information

It doesn’t matter particularly if you can’t read the text here. The visual impact is of small text size and long lines, which is immediately daunting. Any research that I’ve found suggests that users read faster with long line lengths, but prefer shorter lengths. That reflects my personal preference. 80 characters is a good rule of thumb for line length.

On a positive note, the main questions are in bold. That’s good. It helps the user to scan and pick out the relevant items, and it shows the structure of the page. The sub-headings though are in italic, and it would be better to have a design style that’s between the main heading and body copy that is clearer and easier to read.

Putting the whole thing on a background image of clouds is just annoying, and makes the text harder to read. It doesn’t add information or usability. This isn’t the place for clouds.

Categorise and structure

The Manchester Airport example above does attempt to give structure to the content. Many sites have a really long list of FAQs. This example is from Camp America.

Camp America FAQs

There are 70 FAQs. Other sites have more. In this case, there is a drop-down at the top where you can filter by category. That’s good, but I predict that most people will miss it, as they will look immediately at the FAQs for the information they want, rather than start by looking around the page just to see what other navigation or content there is. Since the categorisation is there, why not turn it on by default, rather than off? It would help.

Put active information at the start of the line

Some time ago I was working on some copy to help customers who were due to fly, and were in wheelchairs, and wanted some help at the airport.

We had some words along the lines of ‘If you call our contact centre, then when you travel we can arrange for help with your wheelchair’. We changed this to ‘If you are in a wheelchair, and need help when travelling…’ Again, people scan content. With bullets and short sentences, they scan the first words of each item looking for relevance. The change that we made meant that people in wheelchairs didn’t have to read the whole thing to know they had found relevant content, and others could stop reading as it didn’t apply to them.

This example is from Standard Chartered Bank:-

Standard Chartered T&Cs

Most of the links start with ‘Terms & Conditions’ and I have to read further to find the relevant ones. I’m on a T&Cs page, so I know it’s all about terms and conditions. Switch the content to ‘English credit card Terms and Conditions’.

Don’t blather

I often see words on sites that don’t add information, and shouldn’t be there. Sometimes, it seems, site owners feel they need some introductory text. This is from Hitched, a UK site about weddings.

Hitched – bridalwear introductory text

Someone has come to the site, usually excited, looking for advice and information. That introductory paragraph adds nothing (IMHO). It’s just there for the sake of it. I predict that most people won’t read it, and those who do get no value from it, which means it’s clutter.

Also, the text is centred, as other text is on the site. This makes it harder to read. We get used to starting at the same left-hand (in English) position for each line. Centred text forces us to take time and effort – even if it’s not conscious – locating the start of the line. It becomes fatiguing if there’s too much.

Takeout

Users have goals. When it comes to facts, there are some simple guidelines that in most cases will help people to get what they want quickly.

  • Use bullets
  • Write good English (or whatever the language is), and make it unambiguous
  • Limit line length
  • Categorise and structure the content
  • Put active information at the start of the line
  • Don’t blather – make every word justify its existence
  • Don’t centre text
  • Make it physically easy to read – large enough text size, no patterned backgrounds, good contrast

IOT requires a broader skill set than traditional product management

Whilst user interfaces have by definition been based on hardware, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IOT) will likely challenge product managers to develop a broader range of skills. Once, you had a computer, built, let’s say, by IBM. There needed to be an operating system for it, and a young Microsoft came along with DOS, which stood for Disk Operating System. It was before Windows. One company made the hardware, another made the software, and if something didn’t work, there was always a chance that they could say ‘it’s not our fault, it’s the other guys’.

IOT typically encompasses a combined hardware and software offering from one company. Even if parts of the whole are contracted out for the manufacturing, there’s going to be a lead marketing company which takes responsibility for all of it. And the product manager needs to know enough to be able to manage production, software development, UX, and to work with colleagues in marketing. All of that, as well as understanding the market, competitors, customer needs, measurement and feedback processes etc. If hardware and software are developed in-house, being able to manage those processes can sometimes be as challenging as outsourcing – sometimes more so, if, say, the internal IT department has its own budget and autonomy. It’s always critical when engaging with a supplier, internal or external, to agree the terms of engagement up front. Have arguments, have disagreements, but have them before you start, so that once you’re on the path, you have a contract or terms of reference that everyone has signed off on. Everyone has to be aligned to commercial and customer needs.

I have a dog.

My dog

The dog is one of the family, and we want to keep her safe. We have bought her more than one satellite tracker that attaches to her harness. If we lose her, there’s a SIM card in the tracker that connects to an app, and we can see where she is in relation to us, on a map. It’s a great idea.

To make it work, a lot of different elements have to come together. Someone has to have the idea. It can’t just be a good idea, it has to be a commercially viable idea. So there has to be an understanding of the potential market, barriers to entry from competitors (if it’s new), cost and timescales of production, distribution, quality, and product features. That’s the hardware. There are similar consideration for the software, but it’s a different skill set to understand the UX of the app from the features of the hardware, or the technical infrastructure or data sources that are needed. The original tracker we bought wasn’t natively waterproof, but the company had brought out a case for it. Many dogs love to go swimming, as ours does, and they are going to be caught in the rain, so a waterproof tracker has to be high on the list of requirements, but adds to the expense. There’s an equation to be worked out.

Ultimately, the hardware was good, from our point of view. The software was a different story though. It seems that many companies outsource software development not only to India, but also China, as was the case here. The default location for the dog was always in China, which completely threw me when I loaded it up. The whole interface was un-intuitive. If you’re in a panic because you’ve lost your dog, your vision and thinking will shut down, and you have to have something that is utterly simple to use.

The point is that, as ever, the end-to-end experience has to work for the customer. I messaged the company repeatedly about the problems with the software, including the bugs. They didn’t help much. I don’t think they had the skills, or maybe the resources. I wonder if they even owned the IP on the software, or were committed to using a developer thousands of miles away with whom they had poor communication. That’s speculation of course, but something a product manager should be thinking of. Eventually the company stopped supporting the device, leaving me with some useless and expensive hardware, and a useless annual subscription for a SIM card.

Marketing and sales need to understand the benefits to the customer, as is the case with any product. When I realised I had to replace the tracker, I researched the market. One of my requirements was that the tracker should roam across mobile networks. There’s no point having an O2 SIM if there’s only a Vodafone signal. It should work if there’s a signal from any network. If there’s no signal, then you’re out of luck, but at least maximise the chances. This requirement means that either you provide your won SIM, or the built-in one has to be able to roam. One product I looked at comes from Europe. I messaged the very friendly people there, but was either unable to clearly communicate what the question was that I was asking (will it roam across UK networks), or they didn’t know. So I bought a different, more expensive one.

Some ideas will originate with the hardware, such as, say, a thermostat or speakers, and someone will come up with an idea that will link them to the Internet, make them controllable remotely, integrate with other functions, which requires a software interface (that doesn’t have to be an app, it could be voice, for example, or both). Equally you could start with a fitness app, and have an idea for a hardware tracker. In each case, the manager has to extend their skill set beyond their traditional competence to ensure that end-to-end experience.

IOT will also integrate with the latest tech buzzwords – robotics, AI, big data, AR, VR, and alternative interfaces, such as gestures and, particularly, voice. Interface designers will need to be clear about the underlying principles of good usability that apply across different implementations, and then understand how to apply those principles for each case. The product manager must be able to assess and trust that the designer has done their job.

New technologies demand new skills, and the IOT is no different in that respect. It does though need  product managers/owners and their bosses to recognise what that range of skills is.