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Making IT Better For Customers Wed 27 Oct 10

Three things to keep in mind when designing applications.

IT spends a lot of time trying to improve our system and the user interface, especially when they will be used by our external customers. Most of the time, we're pretty good at delivering easy-to-use applications. However, I recently came across two examples of how our systems can impact customer perception even when the customer doesn't use them, or when it is a minor utility application.

Headache powders crunchcandy

The first example was when I renewed two prescriptions. The pharmacy I use is a large national chain. It has online prescription renewal, and everything went smoothly. Shortly before I picked them up, I received an automated phone message that one of the prescriptions was delayed. This was a little off-putting since the pharmacy didn't say which one was delayed. It also struck me as strange that it ran out, as both were very common prescriptions.

The next day I went to the pharmacy to check on the prescriptions since one of them had completely run out. Fortunately, the one I needed most was filled and led to a rather telling conversation.

Clerk: I'm sorry but we're out of the second item, and it is back ordered.

Me: Any idea when it might be in?

Clerk: I don't have any way of knowing…but if you'd like, I can phone some of our other stores and see if they have it in stock.

Me: No thank you, I'll take care of it myself.

This little exchange told me a couple of things. First, the pharmacy didn't have (or wasn't trained on) visibility into the supply chain. Second, it didn't have (or wasn't trained on) visibility into its inventory. Given that the pharmacy deals with highly regulated, controlled substances this insight is not very comforting.

Ultimately, even though I was not a direct user of the pharmacy's system, the system deficiencies (yes, even if it was inadequate training, I consider that to be a system deficiency) led to a bad customer experience, which is never a good way to grow or retain business.

My second example involves dealing with a major IT publication for which I receive the print edition. About six weeks ago, I changed offices and dutifully went online to the publication's website and changed my mailing address.

An old officemate was kind enough to forward recent issues that are still going to my old address even though I had given the publication my new address six weeks ago. Thinking I might have done something incorrectly, I went to the publication's website and confirmed that I had indeed changed my mailing address.

That's when I saw something strange. It was a little disclaimer that said new subscribers should wait two to four weeks after ordering before they attempt to login.

Two to four weeks? In a world with Internet, two to four seconds is a long time. Two to four weeks is an eternity.

Keep in mind this was an IT publication. A publication that focuses on new technologies, how best to deploy them, how to leverage them and how to be successful in your IT career.

Sadly, two to four weeks to activate a login account only calls its credibility into question. It may have been only a minor utility application, but it highlights the face that it doesn't practice what it preaches.

These two examples reminded me of a couple of things.

First, the impact of how systems are used goes beyond just the direct end-user experience. As important as the interface is, we have to make sure that we also provide all of the information needed or alternate ways to get it. It's easy to design our applications around the normal activity, but we also need to think about what happens when the unusual situation occurs. We need to make sure we provide a means of addressing those situations too.

Second, attention to detail is crucial. Often it is the little things that matter, and are the difference between good and great.

Third, don't forget the basics. Although it is hard to get too excited about the routine items, people want to know that you can do the basic "blocking and tackling" before they'll consider you for the more challenging items. Doing the basics well has to be a given, which is not that same as taking it for granted.

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 "headache powders" photo by crunchcandy / CC NC ND 2.0

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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