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While chatting to the team who have been redesigning the Copac website and UI (coming soon!), I came across Krug’s theory of the Reservoir of Goodwill. This is the idea that each person comes to the website with a certain amount of ‘goodwill’ (or patience) towards your website. Finding the information they need, easily, will fill up that reservoir. Not finding it, or encountering barriers to use, will deplete the reservoir. When it’s empty, they leave – no matter whether they’ve done what they came for or not. And that reservoir can be emptied surprisingly quickly! A single bad design or interaction element can ensure that.

This popped into mind when I encountered the following message while trying to buy bootlaces:

‘Invoice Address – Please do not enter your address as all lower case letters.’

I’m sorry, you think you’re worth capitals to me? You’re not. Lost sale.

And I’m sure they thought it to be a perfectly reasonable request. I can imagine the meeting going something like this:

Person 1: ‘Our invoicing system needs addresses to be correctly capitalised to work! What can we do?’
Person 2: ‘Maybe we could add a script in to toggle case where there’s lower-case at the start of a word?’
Person 3: ‘That sounds like far too much time and effort! Just tell the user not to enter their details all in lower-case. That’s not good grammar, anyway’.

I’m guessing that it’s some kind of system requirement, btw. There’s no indication of whether this is the case, or if the site’s just run by someone who has a moral objection to seeing addresses in lower case. There’s also no any indication of what will happen if I do enter my address in lower case. Will my order get cancelled? Will the poor postman run round in circles trying to find ‘manchester’? Or will the person at the other end just get a bit narky, cos now they have to tidy up my data? What’s the acceptable alternative? Does it have to be Sentence Case? WILL ALL CAPS DO?

I’m pretty sure that at no point did they consider that this requirement would lose them sales. But it emptied my reservoir of goodwill in one big floosh.

This got me wondering what invisible barriers we put in the way of our users – things that to us might seem, if not reasonable and logical, at least justifiable. But to users they might be that one last thing that drains away their last few drops of goodwill – and they might never come back.

One sprang to mind immediately. My mum recently admitted, in a resigned and weary tone, that she now knows her library card number off by heart, through having to enter it every time she downloads a library ebook to her phone. Her 14-digit library card number, that is. 14 digits! Now, it’s been quite some time since Maths A level, and statistics were never my strong point, but I believe 14 digits allows for 10^14 combinations. That’s 289,254,654,976 possible library card numbers. I know we say to be optimistic about usage, but really!

I wondered if this was a fluke, so I ran a very quick and dirty poll on twitter (which I’ve just discovered doesn’t have a results page I can share with you), so here’s a nice screenshot:
Results of as of 14:30, 5/3/12
Now, I know this isn’t very scientific, but it gives a quick snapshot. 91% of respondents have to enter their library card number to use at least some online services. For 90% of them, that’s 8 digits or more. For 50%, it’s 11 digits or more. That’s as long or longer as a mobile phone number. And remember – even the fact of having to authenticate can be a barrier to entry.

Now, I admit that this might not be the domain of the library itself. Authentication to use resources is something we usually don’t have any control over, and the method of authentication might not be under the library’s control either. But educational institutions have made good progress with single sign-on and federated access – isn’t it time we were asking our councils to do the same? I know I have 3 different logins that I have to use in various sections of the council website: for library services; for council tax; and for gym bookings. I’d love a single sign-on to access all of these.

But even if we know it’s not the fault of the library, the user doesn’t. To them it’s just another barrier, another number to remember. And while some won’t mind entering it, and some will mind entering it but will do it anyway, others might be turned away. Their reservoir of goodwill might be empty. They might have just lost their library card, and can’t remember the number. Either way, that’s a disappointed user, and one less notch on your monthly stats.

This is where user testing is so important. We can’t possible ever identify all of the barriers that someone might find to use of our sites and resources. It might be that they’re things that sound ridiculous to you (‘Objecting to entering their address in sentence case? Is this person a lunatic?!?’), but the site isn’t for you. It’s for your users.

So, over to you. What invisible barriers have you encountered? What ones might we be putting in people’s way? And what can we do to remove them?

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