“It’s not your fault, mom.”

I just found this never-published 2007 indictment of web commerce, and realized that if mom were still here 12 years later I could probably write the same thing today. There hasn’t been much much progress on smoother interaction for the impaired, and I don’t see modern web software development on track to get us there. Maybe it will require a (hopefully non-surgical) high-bandwidth brain/computer interface. Maybe Doc Searls’ universal shopping cart. Maybe both.


November 3, 2007

Tonight, while visiting my parents, I spent an hour helping my mom buy tickets to two Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. It went horribly wrong in six different ways. Here is the tale of woe.

A friend had directed her to Fandango with instructions to “Type ‘Metropolitan Opera’ in the upper-right search box.” Already my mom’s in trouble. Which upper-right search box? There’s one in the upper-right corner of the browser, and another in the upper-right corner of the Fandango page. She doesn’t distinguish between the two.

I steer her to the Fandango search box, she tries to type in ‘Metropolitan Opera’, and fails several times. Why? She’s unclear about clicking to set focus on the search box. And when she does finally aim for it, she misses. At age 86, arthritis and macular degeneration conspire against her.

I help her to focus on the search box, she types in ‘Metropolitan Opera’, and lands on a search results page. The title of the first show she wants to buy is luckily on the first page of a three-page result set, but it’s below the fold. She needs to scroll down to find it, but isn’t sure how.

I steer her to the show she wants, she clicks the title, and lands on another page where the interaction is again below the fold. Now she realizes she’s got to navigate within every page to the active region. But weak vision and poor manual dexterity make that a challenge.

We reach the page for the April 26th show. Except, not quite. Before she can choose a time for the show — unnecessarily, since there’s only one time — she has to reselect the date by clicking a link labeled ‘Saturday April 26th’. Unfortunately the link text’s color varies so subtly from the regular text’s color that she can’t see the difference, and doesn’t realize it is a link.

I steer her to the link, and she clicks to reveal the show time: 1:30. Again it’s unclear to her that this is a link she must follow.

I steer her to the 1:30 link, and finally we reach the purchase page. Turns out she already has an account with Fandango, which my sister must have helped her create some time ago. So mom just needs to sign in and…

You can see this coming from a mile away. She’s forgotten which of her usual passwords she used at this site. After a couple of failures, I steer her to the ‘Forgot password’ link, and we do the email-checking dance.

The email comes through, we recover the password, and proceed to checkout. The site remembers her billing address and credit card info. I’m seeing daylight at the end of the tunnel.

Except it’s not daylight, it’s an oncoming train.

Recall that we’re trying to buy tickets for two different shows. So now it’s time to go back and add the second one to the shopping cart. Unfortunately Fandango doesn’t seem to have a shopping cart. Each time through you can only buy one set of tickets.

I steer her back to the partially-completed first transaction. We buy those tickets and print the confirmation page.

Then we enter the purchase loop for the second time and…this one is not like the other one. This time through, it asks for the card’s 3-digit security code. She enters it correctly, but the transaction fails because something has triggered the credit card company’s fraud detector. Probably the two separate-but-identical charges in rapid succession.

We call the credit card company, its automated system wants her to speak or enter her social security number. She tries speaking the number, the speech recognizer gets it wrong, but mom can’t hear what it says back to her. In addition to macular degeneration and arthritis, she’s lost a lot of her hearing in the last few years. So she tries typing the social security number on the phone’s keypad, and fails.

I grab the phone and repeat ‘agent’ and ‘operator’ until somebody shows up on the line. He does the authentication dance with her (maiden name, husband’s date of birth, etc.), then I get back on the line and explain the problem. The following dialogue ensues:

Agent: “Whoa, this is going to be hard, we’re having a problem and I can’t access her account right now. Do you want to try later?”

Me: “Well, I’m here with my 86-year-old mom, and we’ve invested a whole lot of effort in getting to this point, is there any way to hang onto the context?”

He sympathizes, and connects me to another, more powerful agent. She overrides the refusal, authorizes the $63, and invites me to try again.

Now the site reports a different error: a mismatch in either the billing zip code, or the credit card’s 3-digit security code. To Fandango it looks like the transaction failed. To the credit card company it looks like it succeeded. What now?

The agent is pretty sure that if the transaction failed from Fandango’s perspective, it’ll come out in the wash. But we’re both puzzled. I’m certain the security code is correct. And all other account info must be correct, right? How else how could we have successfully bought the first set of tickets?

But just to double-check, I visit mom’s account page on Fandango. The billing address zip code is indeed correct. So is everything else, except…wait…the credit card’s expiration date doesn’t match. The account page says 11/2007, the physical card says 11/2010.

Turns out the credit card company recently refreshed mom’s card. This is weird and disturbing because, if the successful transaction and the failed transaction were both using the same wrong expiration date, they both should have failed.

Sigh. I change the expiration date, and finally we buy the second set of tickets. It’s taken an hour. My mom observes that if Fandango accepted orders over the phone, we’d have been done about 55 minutes ago. And she asks:

“How could I possibly have done that on my own?”

I know all the right answers. Better web interaction design. Better assistive technologies for the vision-, hearing-, and dexterity-impaired. Better service integration between merchants and credit card companies. Better management of digital identity. Someday it’ll all come together in a way that would enable my mom to do this for herself. But today isn’t that day.

Her only rational strategy was to do just what she did, namely recruit me. For which she apologizes.

All I can say, in the end, is: “Mom, it’s not your fault.”

3 thoughts on ““It’s not your fault, mom.””

  1. I find that things have gotten interesting since I’ve gone back to a lot of analog life. I’ve bought more trimline phones and plugged them in; I never actually got rid of the landline, but now I don’t have to race upstairs when the phone rings. I got a 70s Pioneer turntable a few years ago and have more or less stopped listening to CDs — and I started playing my piano. I got a typewriter, and I use it.

    While I still buy things online, I do a lot more business over the phone now — partly because I don’t have to hunt for my stupid phone and hope that someone can hear me on the other end. I know where the phone is. It’s attached to the wall, and it’s clear as a you-know-what. If the webform isn’t really handy, and there’s no phone number, I’m done — I’ll either do without or go to someone else. I don’t want to wait forever to play internet games when I’m just trying to buy something, and I certainly don’t want to spend half an hour chatting in a text box with some CSR guard dog. It’s much nicer to talk to a human, too. Every now and then I go to Chicago, go to the symphony or the opera, and sure, I could play the online-seat-ordering games with the countdown clock, but I don’t need that kind of stress. So I call, and there’s this marvelous thing that happens. It’s called a conversation. Masses of info going back and forth. Also, it’s nice. You wind up chatting with some nice young person who knows all about who’s coming and how things have been going, and who has an opinion about the new timpanist or music director or what have you, and they’ll often tell you things you wouldn’t even have thought to ask about. And I already know the houses well enough that no, I don’t need to look at a seating chart, just tell me where the seat is. You hang up happy and excited to be going to the show.

    These days, in Iowa, the landline’s also useful for fielding polling calls and campaign come-ons. You wind up, again, talking with these young people, getting a sense of how they’re looking at things; you can ask questions, and you can tell them how their candidate’s screwing up in the strange market that is pre-caucus Iowa. It’s also good for long conversations with friends, because you can hear each other. You get a cord that’s long enough so you can move around and make a cup of tea and fold some laundry, and you’re fine.

    Here’s what else I use: business cards. I always forget to have them to give out, but I keep other people’s, and now and then I’ll clean out a drawer and remember someone really interesting, and next thing you know, we’re doing a project together.

    I’ll be happy when good local black-and-white film developers show up again. I really don’t want to mess with a darkroom. I got this gorgeous Leica a few years ago but I don’t use it enough; if it weren’t such a pain to get film developed, I think I’d use it more.

    I’ve spent most of my life since the age of 19 or so online, and I’m over 50 now. And it seems to me that the online world has been built for and by young men who have real trouble talking to other people, and would rather not. And I really think that’s the problem. It wasn’t so big a deal when it was just a bunch of nerds, though there were problems — then the greedy types piled in, and between them and the nerds who really believe in Nash-type games, it’s just turned into a bad place made for state surveillance, and I think we should stop shoveling money at it. When they put up the headstone I hope it says THEY FORGOT TO HAVE NICE PEOPLE.

    Anyway, I spend less and less time there, and almost no time with social media, which absorbed my life for years. More time with books and people and the piano. Where the online world is most useful to me now is also strangely retro: it’s replaced TV and the VCR, Live from the Met (I listen to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Music Hall), as a newsreader (I subscribe once again to newspapers) and as a card catalogue. It all feels a little like the age of Archie, Veronica, and Gopher, but with better sound and image. I do miss the BBSes, but given that they came with Stallman, maybe I don’t miss them as much as I think.

    1. It’s always wonderful to hear from you, Amy.

      > I know where the phone is. It’s attached to the wall.

      High on my list of questions that never needed to be asked: “Where’s the phone?”

      > So I call, and there’s this marvelous thing that happens. It’s called a conversation.

      This happened to me most recently when my son moved to California. Investigating his health insurance options, I went to the Covered California site, felt lousy about it, and called the number. The woman who answered took me through the process in about the same time it would’ve taken to do it online. At the end my son was signed up for coverage, but we had also connected on a personal level and talked about things far beyond the scope of the call.

      > I really don’t want to mess with a darkroom.

      Me neither. I loved working in the darkroom my dad set up when I was a teen. When my wife got her first art studio, it was in a space that had been a dentist’s office, and it had a darkroom where they used to develop the x-rays. I thought: Cool! And I set up to do film developing and printing like I remembered. This was at the dawn of digital photography. I spend one hour in the dark with those smelly chemicals and never went back. There are some analog experiences I’m happy to let go of.

      > I’ve spent most of my life since the age of 19 or so online, and I’m over 50 now.

      I’m 62, so my pre-online life was longer than yours. But I’m coming to similar conclusions as you express here.

      > And it seems to me that the online world has been built for and by young men who have real trouble talking to other people, and would rather not.

      Because it was. I’ll always remember this from an early social media site:

      “Are you my friend? [Yes / No]”

      > More time with books and people and the piano.

      Yup. In my case, books, people, and guitar.

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