We cannot accept that behavior
I bought some concert tickets online a few days ago. For once I was online and ready as the tickets were going on sale at 10am.
09:58am ? I clicked through a maze of links to finally arrive at a page where it seemed like I’d be able to buy tickets.
09:59am ? I continually refreshed the page until a “buy tickets” button appeared.
10:00am ? Once it finally showed up I clicked the big friendly button and was taken to a page that required even more clicking around before eventually presenting me with an “add to cart” button. Pressing it presented me with this dialog:
10:01 ? I filled in the form as quickly as possible and clicked “join now.” Then I got this error message:
I stared at my computer screen for a minute sorta wishing it had a face so I could punch it.
10:02am ? As I sat there feeling frustrated, and a little insulted, all the good tickets were being snapped up by people with one word last names like Smith and Baker. Then I had to decide whether to hyphenate my last name or remove the space, trying to anticipate the consequences of the decision for will-call or credit card payments.
10:05am ? I finally purchased my 2 tickets, using an improvised last name. (I can no longer recall what solution I had to use to make it work.)
Though I managed to get tickets I was very indignant after being told that my last name was unacceptable. Can you imagine going down to the box office to buy tickets and having the guy behind the counter tell you that he cannot accept your name? That seems absurd! (unless of course you’re shopping from the soup nazi) Yet we encounter rude and insulting behavior from interfaces all the time.
Software has replaced people in so many of our daily transactions, from buying concert tickets to shoes and groceries. Computers bring obvious improvements to the table: they can provide instant comparisons, full feature lists and recommend similar items more easily than a person could. In fact computers could make this a fantastic experience by providing a very quick, very flexible way of choosing the right seat at the right price if they didn’t just focus on just automating the analog transaction, but that’s a whole other blog post. Even in this context of database transactions it's time software started learning some manners and stopped hurling insults whenever we ask it to do something difficult.
If the request is truly impossible, at the very least inform me politely, and tell me what I need to do to make it work. For example, "We're terribly sorry but our system is unable to deal with spaces in names. If you could please remove it we'll sign you right up." That’s probably a bit wordy, but better than "we cannot accept your name" without telling me why, or what I can do to make it acceptable. The best case is for the software to deal with whatever my last name happens to be, fixing the problem for me so that I don’t have to know or care that it’s database can’t accept spaces.
If we want our products to be liked, we need to design them to behave in the same manner as a likeable person.1 Our software should be polite, but more than that it needs to be considerate and take into account our needs and goals.
1 Cooper, Reimann & Cronin. About Face 3. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2007 249-285