Who Had the Worst User Experience?

  |  January 9, 2003   |  Comments

Big brands, big boo-boos. Lessons learned from user experience shortcomings at Amazon, NBC, and Sony.

Let me offer three examples of companies that failed to deliver a good user experience during the holiday season. They failed through a lack of the basic abilities to do thorough design, implementation, quality assurance, and intradepartment communication.


I hopped onto the Sony.com Web site to see what new goodies I could buy for myself. (I was supposed to be shopping for other people but was distracted by the prospect of a Plasma TV hanging on my wall.)

On the product page for a front-projector (the VPL-PX15), one paragraph reads as follows (my italics):

Application Software for Presentation Control: The VPL-PX15 is provided with Sony original ------Presentation Viewer, Image Viewer and File Manager (note: if these are not our trademarks, are they cleared for use?) application software. The Presentation Viewer enables users to prepare and run Microsoft PowerPoint. and Excel presentation files, while the Image Viewer makes JPEG/GIF/BMP/PNG presentations possible.

* PROJECTOR STATION version 3 software requirements: Microsoft Windows (note: just need to use . first time mentioned.) 98, Windows 98 SE, Windows Me or Windows 2000 operating system.

Someone forgot to check the copy before it went live. The mistake makes Sony look unprofessional and calls into question the content's accuracy.

Infinite Loop

Sony also has the distinction of having about a thousand different Web sites, all with different user experiences. Some of its sites have no discernable information architecture (the flow of pages and data) at all.

This page, a support page for a Vaio desktop, contains a link to an XP upgrade. Click, and there's a list of computer model numbers. Click on your model number and guess what happens? It takes you to the page you just came from! Great going, guys. Clearly, no one thought about user experience or information architecture on these sites.


From ShopNBC's Satisfaction Guarantee: "If ShopNBC lowers the price on an item you have ordered, call ShopNBC.com Customer Service toll-free at 1-800-676-5523 within 30 days of your original purchase date."

We purchased a ring. Five hours later, the price was reduced. We called and were told the difference would be refunded to our credit card. We received an email confirming this. When the account wasn't credited, we followed up with an email asking when it would occur. We were told it would take five to seven business days.

It's now 30 days and several email exchanges later. No credit has been received. The last person who emailed us got confused and thought we were returning the product. We were informed no credit would be issued until the product was returned. We weren't returning it, we were trying to have them honor the Satisfaction Guarantee! The response: Customer service isn't aware of the "Satisfaction Guarantee" policy, rather the crediting department is responsible. The crediting department doesn't have a phone number or an email address. We're still waiting, ShopNBC!


I received a $100 Amazon.com gift certificate. I bought these "run the Ethernet through the electricity in your house" gadgets so we could extend the reach of our wireless network. The device cost a little over $100. At checkout, the system requested my gift certificate number. I typed it in and clicked. The page refreshed, but all prices were unchanged. The system didn't seem to acknowledge I had entered a gift certificate. I tried again. Maybe I had mistyped the number? Nothing.

Finally, I called customer service. It turns out because the device is delivered through a partner (Circuit City, in this case), discounts and gift certificates don't apply. That's reasonable. But there's no indication on the checkout page this is a "partner" product, and no messaging after I input the gift certificate number telling me why it does not apply to my order. I had to call Amazon for an explanation. How much is it spending on its call center this year due to a poor job implementing gift certificate functionality?

A Brighter Future?

I hope this year will be a better one for online user experiences. The basic principle we need to follow is pretty simple: Develop robust use cases for your projects, and follow a sound development methodology.

A use case enumerates all possible things a user could do within a feature, along with the steps the user must take to accomplish that task. If Amazon had included a "user tries to redeem a gift certificate for partner products" use case when designing the gift certificate feature, the error would have been accounted for by the programmers. The problem I had with Amazon was not a programmer's fault. It was the fault of the product manager who didn't think of this use case. She didn't design for it, so programmers didn't implement it.

Sony's problem is one of quality control and information architecture. No one at Sony has ever sat down to really think about the user experience of the sites. (If someone has, he should be fired immediately.)

Finally, ShopNBC has a case of internal departments setting policies then not informing other departments how to execute those policies.

All classic business problems. It's clear these companies haven't gotten things right. This year, go back to basics: Design 101, Implementation 101, QA 101, and Communication 101. Assess your company's ability to catch the types of errors in this column. If you fail at this stuff, you're unequipped to handle bigger tasks that will surely come your way this year.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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