Here’s a thought experiment. You are working for a major automotive company and wondering how you can improve a car that you manufacture. Extensive focus group research has revealed that some customers would like a satellite navigation system as a standard feature. So, with a great fanfare, you release a new version of the car with an integrated satnav.
The problem is this: the technical people who designed the satnav forgot to take into account that people might want to drive the car somewhere familiar, and just not use the satnav. So you post on your website a PDF containing detailed instructions for the sequence of eight buttons you need to tap at the start of a journey where you don’t want to use the satnav. A few drivers seem upset at having to go through this extra stage which they didn’t need before, but you’re sure that’s just resistance to change which will subside. After all, how difficult can it be to follow a set of instructions?
Unfortunately there’s another snag. After the seventh tap, drivers are getting the impression that the system should be ready to go, so there are instances of people calling the AA, and cancelling visits to their grandparents, because they have missed the eighth tap and the system won’t let them release the handbrake. So you add another step, which is that when you first get into the car, the satnav displays a screen reminding you to do the eighth tap, which you need to dismiss before you can go any further. But drivers are still calling the AA and missing their grandparents, because that extra step occurs as soon as you get into the car, and once you have sat down and fastened your seat belts and checked whether anybody remembered to pack a box of chocolates for the grandparents, you’ve forgotten about the need to do that final tap.
This may all sound fanciful, but it’s not much different from what’s been happening with the ParentPay platform used to pay for dinners, school trips, and so on at schools up and down the country. ParentPay have just introduced a new feature, called ‘my account’ in response to customer research. While I have some difficulty in reconciling their explanation, that according to their research parents want to maintain a single account with a running balance, with the fact that I now need to maintain two separate balances and move money between them, the real problem is that even if I don’t want to use the ‘my account’ feature I still need to go through a much more complicated procedure than before, because I still need to pay money into ‘my account’ and then transfer it to the school as a separate transaction.
While I found this annoying, I also thought that complaining about needing to go through extra steps to pay for school dinner is what’s regarded in Internet circles as a first world problem. And I then read that children were going hungry because of the poor redesign of the site.
I actually liked the previous version of ParentPay. It might have been no paragon of good human-computer interface design, but it allowed you to pay for a school trip or school dinners with two clicks and typing in the security code on the back of the credit or debit card. I did see ParentPay’s announcements that a new feature would be added, but nowhere did I see an explanation that the simple payment process that I was used to would be removed. From a user’s point of view, it would be simple to add one extra option in the process, so that you could choose either ‘pay by card’ which would take you to the old version or ‘pay from account’. Ideally you should be able to set ‘pay by card’ as a preference, so you could completely ignore the ‘my account’ feature if you didn’t need to use it.
So please, ParentPay, redesign the site and at the very least ensure that it’s no more difficult to use than it was before. And accept that, even if this was done with the best of intentions and even if it appeared to be OK in your preliminary testing, it really isn’t working in practice.