Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The disenfranchising nature of the internet in society - a Rant

This morning has left me angry. Frustrated and angry. Not for myself but for those who are discriminated against and made to feel it is their fault when they battle with the internet.

It all started with the simple task of topping up a mobile broadband account, continued to a farce with attempting online payment and ended with an unsatisfactory solution.

I had set up a pay as you go mobile broadband account with a major UK player for a friend of mine. It is a straightforward system that has worked happily for over a year. Up to today, I had made payments with my friend re-paying me retrospectively.

However, people do prefer to be independent and we decided that she would learn how to top up the mobile broadband herself. After all, it should be straightforward, we thought.

An hour later we had devised a three page (!) set of instructions. At last, we reached the final payment page. Hurrah! We thought. But no, doom was at hand.

Having cleared the hurdles of name, address, bank card details etcetera, it came to the complete payment button. Up popped the card verification window. Authorisation failed.

A further hour was spent in telephone calls to the card provider. Everything was apparently rectified in that time. So back to payment attempt 2 - and 3 - and 4. Payment still failed.

We reverted to the old pattern of my paying - and were done within 10 minutes

By this time my friend, an intelligent, self sufficient professional woman with a lot of experience and knowledge, was left feeling as if she was inadequate and unable to control her own destiny. It makes me angry that she is the one who feels the blame - not the convoluted, user unfriendly internet systems which had entangled her.

The vast majority of people can go into a shop and pay by cash or card. The vast majority of people can go into a bank and receive assistance. The vast majority do not have the same experience on the internet. Yes, many do but you have to be quite internet literate if you want to shop and pay online. 

Think back to the first time you tried paying for something on the internet - the accounts you had to set up, verifications by e-mail, getting your payment cards verified. Now it all seems to work smoothly for you - but at the start it did not appear so simple.

And woe betide you if things go wrong! Many companies have poor and often hidden customer support, never mind the often impossibility of talking to someone you can understand. Remember that surge of trepidation when dealing with questionnaires or pressure from official organisations to do everything online; Where errors  can send you on a time-wasting merry-go-round - with the additional threat of loss of benefits or legal action due to non-compliance.

This disenfranches those in our society with fear of technology, those unfamiliar with it due to age, those who face additional hurdles due to hearing or sight impairment. People who have been included and independent previously suddenly find themselves forced into greater dependency on those more comfortable with online systems.

I am also angry because it has created a new type of discrimination - between those comfortable with technology and striving to adopt ever more - and those who do not. Look out for the gentle ribbing, the one-upmanship, the downright glee when someone can delight at the discomfort of those battling with technology.

There are trends in the internet towards greater simplification and accessibility. After all, businesses and organisations do want to maximise the number of users and customers. However, we still have a long way to go.

You DO have a right to be angry. Be proactive, let businesses and organisations know that they could do better. That way we can all work our way back to a more inclusive society.


  1. Usability is a much discussed topic concerning "technology for the masses". I suggest that the frustration experienced is based on the fact that the communication between the human and the system does not operate on the co-operative principle (Grice http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_principle) - ie. the speaker and the listener are not in a normal conversation and so the direction of the outcome is not steered by either party.
    The solution is to provide support by offering external assistance (e.g. online chat - which many sites now offer) or - even better - by enabling both human and system to provide 'prompts' in order to control the direction of the transaction. This can be achieved on many levels, the simplest is to make the intentions of the transaction very clear at the start together with a list of prerequists. This, at least, will avoid (hopefully) the many false hopes and dark alleyways humans tread when attempting to complete complex forms.

  2. Chris, nice post this - and more than a little pertinent to our daily lives.

    I think part of the problem is a goodly number of programmers who have no idea of what they are doing (to peoples lives), when I have problems and cannot get a satisfactory answer I write! to their boss who, invariably is the Chairman and lo and behold things get sorted - not always to my benefit but more often than not.

    Also something these programmers need to remember is that the best computer in the world sits on their shoulders as it does with all of us.
    Think of the capabilities of that computer.


  3. Thanks for your comments, Jon and Sidney - my blood pressure is gradually coming down :-)

  4. I had the same issues setting up a money card for my daughter. My payments to top up the credit often failed for no apparent reason and my bank blames the card operator and the card operator my bank. Eventually it settled down. The idea of the card was really as emergency money so I could top it up and she could make a withdrawn minutes later but the only way to settle such problems we repeated had for 6 months was for her as card owner and me as bank account holder to both talk to the support services.

    As to the programmers - I have seen how most firms continue to work by demanding inordinately high levels of documentation yet do not allow the proper design consideration by the programming team. The last phase of testing the design and concept with the general public to find what breaks is dropped as being too expensive.

    The banks started to hand out security key devices and in fact still use them but have now drop their compulsory when accessing internet bank. It never made things easier. It made a simple 2 minute account operation more complex, more error prone and needing a score of random key strokes to be entered repeated between computer and the device. I would suggest the banks were told that it was stupid but politics wanted it to appear that they were making customer accounts more secure.

  5. Thanks Gerald. Perhaps the key success of the i-phone is the trend towards simpler interactions for the user and would hope that these concepts trickle down to banks and sellers. However, the reality is often that things will not be changed until an organisation is forced to by errors or strong customer dissatisfaction.

  6. Oh how I sympathise with anyone having problems with computers. My own inabilities with the wretched machines is well known among my peers.
    Only this evening I spent far too long trying to update my subscription to Mailwasher Pro.

    Initially it promised to be simplicity itself. "click here to renew" it said and in response took me to the appropriate page. Trouble was that on that page the next step was far from obvious. The first thing I saw was an option to buy something else in addition but nowhere was it obvious how I might avoid doing that and continue with my original intent.

    Eventually after back tracking and retracking my steps a few times I realised that there was a button further down the page on which I needed to click to access what the original invitation had told me I would be taken to the first time.

    All too often it seems that web pages are designed so that when you click to access the function you want, you will be taken to an array of options whereby it is difficult not to enrol for more than you intended.

    For example, how many times does one wish to download a useful program only to discover (or more probably fail to discover) that there are a number of pre-ticked additional options for shortcuts or things you really do not want that will subsequently cause you even more unwanted annoyance; perhaps by loading a preferential search engine toolbar.

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