eBay’s User Experience Blunder

Good, or bad, user experiences really come down to a few simple things: intuitive design, clarity and execution. If you mess one of those up you have a confused user who is likely to experience problems and get frustrated. This can be anything: a website, a cell phone or information about trains at a subway stop. If you need to catch that train, for a job interview, let’s say, and the map on the wall is utterly confusing, then you’re probably going to get angry, get more confused and have a terrible interview when you finally get to your destination. Frustration with hard to use cell phones lead to a phone being thrown against the wall in the extreme, and a new phone in most cases. In either example, the brand is damaged. You probably won’t buy that cell phone brand the next time around and for the subway commuter you will think, in perpetuity, that [fill in the blank] Metro System is staffed with morons. With a website it’s much easier. You click away. And, you probably won’t come back. Maybe not ever again.

eBay, for some reason, began including a CAPTCHA as part of their online registration process this summer, and they did so in such a shoddy way that they made a whole bunch of users pretty darn frustrated. Their mistake was that they broke two of the cardinal rules — clarity and execution.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the expression, a CAPTCHA is an acronym based on the word “capture” that stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” It’s the little jumble of words or letters that you are asked to type before submitting a form. The sole purpose is to make sure you are a human being, who can decipher the jumble, as opposed to a computer application, program or bot that cannot. CAPTCHA’s, while annoying at times, prevent automated abuse of forms.

Here’s a couple CAPTCHA style examples I am sure you have seen:

I first heard about the problem with eBay’s CAPTCHA from my 80 year old father-in-law. Yes, I have included his age because it is an important part of the story. While he is 80, he is a very savvy computer user. He sends email, reads the news, listen to music and even shops online. Over the course of several months he was looking for something in particular and started perusing Craigslist and eBay to see if he could find the item there. Viola! The thing he wanted was on eBay so he decided to register an account and start bidding.

Although he told me later he had no clue why he had to type in the scrambled words when he filled out forms online, he was not unfamiliar with CAPTCHA’s. He had, after all, seen them on Craigslist. But eBay’s was different, and confusing, and he wasn’t able to figure it out. The next time I visited him, he took me into his computer room and asked me to explain it to him. This is what I saw:

It seemed pretty clear cut to me. Enter the numbers in the box, I told him. It’s a CAPTCHA…, I began to explain.

And he said, I don’t see an image.

Then I read the instructions, because I hadn’t actually read them before. I had seen that sort of set up a million times and knew what I was supposed to do. Intuitively. Just, I am sure, as the designer who had laid out that section of the form had seen millions of times as well.

But for my father-in-law, who is 80, and was actually reading the instructions since it was a new experience for him, it was confusing. The numbers didn’t look like an image. They didn’t even look hidden. They were numbers out in the open. He didn’t realize they were the thing he was supposed to type into the box.

An absolutely perfect example of a user experience design fail, where the designer forgot the most important element of user design: You must always think like the user.

How many other 80 year olds, or 40 year olds, ran across that and were absolutely baffled by the wording?

Pretty incredible, especially from a company like eBay!

I mentioned there was another problem with their CAPTCHA, one involving execution. As it turned out, the “image” with the numbers didn’t show up in the FireFox browser. The user was confronted with a blank space and nothing they to type into the box.

Within a month or so eBay removed the CAPTCHA from the registration form.


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