Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don't Do Me Any Favors

Netflix did me a favor. Or at least they said they did.


On Friday, I sent a movie back to Netflix. The replacement is arriving on Saturday, more than a week later -- because they did me a favor and sent me the first movie in my queue.

Because of the Memorial Day holiday, Netflix didn't receive my return until Tuesday. Then, they sent me the note above telling me that the top movie in my queue isn't available locally, so they're going to do me the favor of sending it from San Jose instead. But, not only does this movie still show as available "now", but every other movie in my queue also shows as available "now". I'd be perfectly happy with the second movie. Or the third. Or the eighth. But, instead, they did me a favor, so instead of receiving a movie on Wednesday, I'm supposed to get it on Saturday. (But, don't cry for me -- I don't have time to watch it anyway.)

I'm not saying that software designers shouldn't try and figure out what users want and help them out. Of course, they should. But, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you helping your user? or yourself?
  • If you could ask the user what they want, what would they say? And would all users, or even almost all users, want the same thing?
For another example, my friend Mike Koss recently pointed out another annoying "favor". It's that wonderful Windows Desktop Clean-up Wizard that helps me out by nagging me that I have unused icons on my desktop. I never want to see it again! When they added the option to turn off the reminder (and buried it), did they consider whether they should just turn it off for everybody? Mike's post also adds his personal taxonomy of software annoyances and delights.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Misunderstanding the User

A while ago, I wrote about some good technical support by NetGear. Now here's some absolutely abysmal support by PayPal.

Like most PayPal customers, I use them because I have to, not because I want to. PayPal has a monopoly in online payment systems and there are things that I can't buy (or are much more difficult to buy) if I don't use PayPal. So, I use them a few times a year.

Recently, I bought something from a seller in Hong Kong who would only take PayPal and required that I become "verified" in order to sell to me. Now, I've been a PayPal user since 2000, but I never bother to become "verified" because the advantages don't matter to me. But, I figured, what's the disadvantage? I would add my checking account, then remove it after I'm verified. Unfortunately, that doesn't work.

When I removed my checking account, I once again became unverified. Apparently, nobody at PayPal bothered to look up the definition of "verify" and proper use of the past tense. Once I am verified, by definition, I cannot become unverified.

To make things more confusing, PayPal and the merchants who use PayPal have two different meanings for verified. In the one coherent response that I got from PayPal support, they even acknowledge this.

Becoming Verified will show others you have confirmed your identity in the PayPal system and the Verified status will increase confidence within the PayPal community.

Verification is also necessary to lift the sending and withdrawal limit on an account. Once you've reached these limits, the only way to continue to use your PayPal account to send and withdraw money is to become Verified.
Never mind that there's really no such thing as a "PayPal community" -- I think that's wishful thinking on their part. But it is true that someone I might transact with has a greater confidence in me if I'm verified. But I could care less about the limits. This support person also wrote:
The key to this is not that you suddenly become "not real"; we understand that you remain the same person who verified with us.
Interesting -- PayPal understands that I don't become "not real," yet they fail to communicate this to people that I transact with. Is there any logical reason for that?

By the way, if I were to give up and leave my checking account attached to my PayPal account (and I considered that), PayPal defaults to sending money from my checking account, not the credit card that I've used for 8 years. Every time, I do a transaction, I have to manually change it back to my credit card. Why?! And there's no way to change the default back to my credit card. I know that PayPal claims I'm 100% protected with my bank account, but I'd still rather use my credit card where the protection is mandated by Federal law.

In the process of figuring things out, I tried to get PayPal support to pass on a message to the people actually responsible for this, but they were completely incapable of doing that. They misunderstood what I was saying and sent me the same canned responses repeatedly. For example, in my last email to PayPal, I sent the following (this is an excerpt):
Personally, I could care less about sending and withdrawal limits or any of the other benefits of being "verified". If you insist on "unverifying" people who remove their bank accounts, you really should provide an indicator that the person has been verified as real. Hey, how about calling that "verified" and using some other word to indicate "currently has a bank account attached"? Please pass this information on to someone who can do something about it.
The canned response gave me the same instructions on how to remove my bank account that I'd already been sent before.

PayPal does two things wrong here:
  • They're setting things up for their convenience, not their customers'. I would guess that there is an advantage to having my checking account be the default funding source and I would guess it has to do with revenue. But why should that inconvenience me?
  • Their technical support staff lacks information they need and it looks like they respond to support queries without actually reading the questions they are responding to. When I send a message that says, in its entirety, "Will you pass on my feedback to someone who can actually change it instead of just sending me back canned responses? Pretty please?" and it gets a canned response repeating something I've already been told, it gets pretty comical.
I'm hoping that maybe somebody from PayPal reads blogs.

Monday, May 19, 2008

One Size Doesn't Fit All

The photography industry is just like the software industry...

Recently, a woman came up to me to ask me some questions about her camera. She noticed the Nikon D300 I was using and figured I must know something. She had just bought a Nikon D40 kit with two lenses. She was on vacation and had it shipped to her hotel, so it had literally come out of the box hours earlier. She wanted to know ...

  • Why didn't it show her anything on the LCD on the back when she was taking pictures? She was trying to hold it out in front of her to take pictures.
  • How did you zoom? She'd looked all over for the zoom buttons and couldn't find them. It didn't make sense to her that she would be zooming by rotating the barrel of the lens.
  • When would she use the other lens that came in the kit? And, where was it? Back at her hotel, of course.
There were other things too. The kit had come with a camera bag, which was back at the hotel with the extra lens. A lot of good they were going to do her there. I gave her a bunch of tips she wasn't asking for, and, just as I was suggesting that maybe she should buy a UV filter to protect her lens, she wiped the front of the lens with her sweater. Aargh! I hinted to her that maybe she had bought the wrong camera. Maybe I was too polite.

The D40 is a great camera for its price. It's a great starter DSLR. But not for her. She didn't understand it, none of the advantages of a DSLR mattered to her, and she'd spent twice as much money on it as she would have spent if she'd bought the right camera -- like a Nikon P80 or the Canon S5, or maybe even the Canon SD850 that I got for my kids. They're all great cameras. If you read the reviews of the first two on Amazon, many of the reviewers criticize them for being what they are. They, like the D40 owner, miss an important point: the manufacturers make different models because they have different customers.

Restating the obvious, you should buy the camera that's right for you.

If you're shopping for a camera and don't know what to buy, start by making a list of the criteria that matter to you (e.g., size and weight, zoom, resolution, viewfinder, live view LCD, flip-around LCD, interchangeable lenses, controls and menus, price). Put these in order of importance. Then, rank each of the cameras that you are thinking about by each of these criteria and see which one comes out on top. You may well find that two similar cameras from different manufacturers rank at the top. Then, it's a matter of feel. Try them out. Kick the tires. See which you like better. You can't go wrong with any of the major manufacturers.

There is no "best" product.

The same thing is true in the software industry. Consumers frequently have the perception that a given product or web service is the "best" or that they think that in order to be the "best," a product has to meet everybody's needs. Marketers tend to perpetuate this myth. But it is a myth. A major difference in the software industry is that many companies only offer a single product in a given category (or only one product, period). To get a different product, you have to go to another company.

In the case of Sampa, we have a web service that allows people to easily build private, personal web sites to connect with their friends and families. It's not a floor wax or dessert topping!

If you want to socialize with strangers, go to Facebook or one of the many social networking sites. If you want to send messages to your friends every 10 minutes, go to Twitter. If you want to share all your photos and commune with thousands of other photographers, go to Flickr. If you're a business wanting a web presence to sell things online, go to Ebay, Amazon, or a multitude of other companies. There's no shame in sending a customer to another place where they'll be happier. But, if you want to build that private web site for your friends and family, go to Sampa, because that isn't what Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc., do.

There is no "best" product for everyone. If you're a customer, figure out what you actually want to do and pick the product that fits.

If you're a developer, find your customers and meet their needs. If you try to satisfy everyone, you'll satisfy no one.