Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I recently moved into a new place (which explains my blogging absence - sorry about that everyone), and that obviously implies lots and lots of changes. One change in particular has inspired a UX-related post: changing who I pay rent to. I find this to be an interesting UX story because it's not simply about me interacting with a machine, it involves me interacting with both a machine and a person. A lot of people building software don't think about the fact customer service can factor into a user's experience, but it most certainly can.

Aside: Before I begin this review/critique, I'd like to first mention that Verity Credit Union is an excellent bank and that my experience in this case is not typical of the general experience I have had with them over the past few years. In fact, if you're looking to change banks (and if you're not already with a credit union I'm not sure why you wouldn't be), I highly recommend you consider allowing Verity to safeguard and manage your money.

In the past two places I lived, I used Verity's bill pay service to automatically schedule my payments to my landlord. Each month on the 1st they'd get wired the appropriate amount of money directly from my account to theirs. It was pretty sweet; they always got their rent on time, and I never really had to think about it.

The new apartment building I moved into isn't set up to make those kinds of transactions, but the rental agent/receptionist on staff told me that setting up something similar that worked via snail mail instead shouldn't be that hard. I don't have any checks (I haven't written one in like, 3 years) and I don't want to have to bike up to Wallingford just to pay rent every month, so this sounded good. I go to my credit union's website and I try to make another Payee like usual:

There seems to be only one form available, which is kind of confusing because things like "Name on Account" and "Account #" aren't necessary if they're just mailing a check to someone. I try moving forward just leaving it blank, but the form won't let me. I use their in-system email service to shoot them a message and ask how to set up a snail mail version of paying bills. The message I got back almost literally sounded like they were talking to a 5 year old. Here's a snippet:
1. Click on the "payees" link under the "payments" tab. 

2. Please choose  "An Individual" - If the payee you wish to add is an individual (e.g. friend, family member, etc.), select the "An Individual" radio button and then click the "continue button." 
Now, I've worked a help desk before and I know exactly why they do this: they cater to the least common denominator so that they can be certain that they're understood no matter who's on the other end. But just because I understand it doesn't mean I don't hate it and find it mildly insulting. I mean, people just don't talk to  each other like that in every day conversation. Imagine your friend dragged you to a party at a stranger's house and you asked the host where the wine glasses were. How would you react if instead of him just telling you "cabinet left of the sink" he also gave you detailed instructions about how to open said cabinet just in case you hadn't run across that technology before? Right, you'd think he was being condescending (and you then may or may not be planning on how to make sure the contents of your wine glass "accidentally" end up on his carpet).

I don't blame whomever it was that sent me that email. They were probably instructed to talk like that. But it's ridiculous to treat every single user who asks a question like a n00b every single time. Because then you're Clippy. And you don't want to be Clippy.

Go away. No one likes you.
In this case, had the technician done a little homework, they would've seen that I've created 5-6 payees before, and have scheduled many payments, both single payments and recurring. I may not be an expert, but I know my way around the block. It would've been nice to be treated as such.

Anyway, back to my issue: paying bills via snail mail. The technician did answer the question - and the answer is kind of hilarious.
You can input your name or address in the account number field or any other type of information you would like to share with your payee.  I noticed some customers will input the reason for the payment in the account number field, they will input "Happy Birthday" as the account number.
I'm gonna be honest with you, Verity technician person: that's just weird. I can't leave the account number blank if there's no account number, but I can type in random nonsense that has nothing to do with an account number and that's kosher? Any librarians or information architects reading this are probably tearing their hair out about now.

Here's how I would fix this.

Quick Fix: Make the account info stuff on the form non-mandatory, put a box around it to specifically call it out and put this text in the box in bold: Fill in these fields to have payments sent electronically. Otherwise payments will be mailed to payees. I'd also recommend adding an optional "Memo" field instead of weirdly making the "Account #" field play double duty. Is it not conceivable that someone would want to pay a bill electronically and leave a memo? Plus, labeling it "Memo" mirrors the vocabulary used on checks, and so most people will automatically know exactly what to do with it.

Real Fix: If they've got the time to do some real work on this, the first thing I'd suggest is doing some user research to see how people think about paying bills via snail mail vs. electronic bill pay. I want to say that people are not going find using the same form for both things intuitive. I want to say this because I feel like these are two different goals. "I want you to pay them by mail." "I want to pay them electronically." The method is the differentiator in the goal and so my gut tells me that's the hook people are going to hang their tasks on. There probably are people who just want to pay a bill and don't really care about how it's done behind the scenes, of course. I wouldn't expect the two options to confuse such a person; I would think they'd simply choose one and move on. But they should do research to confirm whether or not these educated guesses are true and update their forms accordingly.


verity said...

Hi. This is Shari Storm, SVP at Verity Credit Union. Thanks for taking the time to make these suggestions. I've passed your blog post around to several people in our online department. I'm not sure how much we can change our payee screens, since we use a third party vendor for Bill Pay, but I can work on how we respond to members.

Sometimes I think it's better to simply pick up the phone and call a member back. In your case, I think we could have cleared this up more quickly. I’d like to ask you this – if you are dealing with someone via email, do you want to keep it in that medium or is switching to voice-to-voice OK? (we have this debate internally and so that is why I ask.)

Regarding your suggestion - whether a bill is paid by mail or by ACH (electronically) is based on whether the receiving vendor has an ACH relationship set up with us. It's not at the discretion of the end user.

Your suggestion for making account numbers non-mandatory for individuals is a good one.

Thanks again and take care.

Dustin Hodge said...

Thanks for actually responding!

And yes, personally, switching to the phone is fine as long as you're prepared to leave a message.

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