Welcome to the first in an occasional series of anecdotes about usability problems. It sounds a bit grand to call them case studies because they’re really just stories, so I’m calling them Real Life Tales of Usability Fail.
Today’s story unfolded when I went to the Witney branch of Robert Dyas in search of linseed oil to treat a new garden bench. I walked into the shop and headed first for an aisle with obvious garden-y things in it: flower pots, etc. After a quick visual scan (quick enough for me to do it without breaking my stride), I established that wasn’t the right aisle and kept going.
I decided that a product for treating garden furniture would probably sit with other garden-related liquids, so I headed for a second aisle containing weedkiller, patio cleaner, liquid fertiliser, etc. No joy, so I uncertainly headed for the back of the shop where I knew I would find more general household products. “Maybe stuff for treating garden furniture will be with the regular furniture polish?” It was worth a look.
It wasn’t there either, but as I headed out of the shop I spotted garden furniture treatment on a shelf. It was just above the wood paint, which I suppose seemed logical to whoever designed the store layout. None of the containers were actually labelled “linseed oil” and none of them had any positive information about what the product contained, just warnings about high levels of VOCs. If legislation didn’t force the manufacturers to put those warnings on the product, would there be any information at all?
I picked up a bottle and read the label. It seemed to be roughly what I was looking for: a treatment for hardwood outdoor furniture. “Is my new bench made of hardwood? What counts as hardwood anyway? If it’s not hardwood and I put this stuff on, will something bad happen? … Never mind that for now, let’s see how it works.”
The blurb on the bottle said that before using the product, you should clean your furniture with a fungicidal product “designed for the purpose”. At that point I would expect them to namecheck another product in their range. Something along the lines of: For best results, use Super-Duper Fungicidal Cleaner from Our Company. But they didn’t. And I didn’t want to buy the treatment until I knew I’d be able to use it according to the instructions. Otherwise it would be yet another thing sitting in the shed until Doomsday.
So I started my search for fungicidal garden furniture cleaner. My first guess was to go back to the weedkiller aisle. I found products for cleaning decking and paving slabs but nothing for garden furniture and nothing labelled as fungicidal.
I spotted a member of staff – let’s call her Blondie, because she’s blonde and it’s kinder than calling her The Girl With The Crappy Tattoo - and approached her before remembering that I’ve asked her for help before and she’s always been useless. Also, she was flirting with someone who I suppose was her boyfriend, and I didn’t want to play gooseberry. So I walked away again and tried general household cleaning products. No luck, so I gritted my teeth and interrupted Blondie’s flirting to ask if they had anything for cleaning garden furniture. She led me back to the weedkiller aisle and began visually scanning it in the way I’d already done twice since entering the shop, but much more slowly. When she established it wasn’t there, she said “I’ll ask” and disappeared.
Blondie returned with a middle-aged man wearing shorts. He wasn’t wearing a Robert Dyas uniform and he didn’t speak, but he looked at me expectantly so I guessed he was an off-duty staff member who had come to try and help me. Maybe he was retired and Blondie had brought him back for one last job. I repeated my question and it became clear that Blondie hadn’t explained much, because Plainclothes Man immediately started looking round the weedkiller aisle himself. I explained that “looking round the weedkiller aisle” was becoming a bit old hat, and he led me to the front of the store. I thought he was leading me to where I would find the furniture cleaner, but he was actually heading for the till to ask his colleagues. (Well, I assume they were his colleagues.)
Plainclothes Man asked a woman who was busy serving customers if Robert Dyas sold stuff for cleaning furniture. She snapped “No” without bothering to look up. I pointed out to her and Plainclothes Man that Robert Dyas sells furniture treatment, and that you need to clean the furniture before you can use the treatment, so it would be logical to sell the cleaning stuff too. Plainclothes Man said, “A bit of soapy water will do.” I said, “Maybe, but the products you sell say that you’re supposed to use a specific anti-fungal cleaner first.” He repeated that soapy water would probably be fine and muttered an apology. I walked out of the shop.
Today I was prepared to spend £12.99 on a furniture treatment product and quite possibly the same again on a furniture cleaner. The product wasn’t quite what I wanted and I wasn’t sure there was a real need for the cleaner, but I would have bought both, because I couldn’t be bothered with any more shopping around. I would have spent nearly £30 (more than the bench itself cost!) just to buy myself the knowledge that I could get on with treating the bench on the next sunny day. In other words, I was pretty much asking to be sold overpriced, unnecessary stuff. But I walked out without buying anything.
There were so many points at which things could have been different – and still could be different.
- If your product really needs to be used in conjunction with another product, name one. If you can’t name one because you don’t want to give business to other companies or you can’t find one, start making one yourself. When did you last buy a shampoo that didn’t have a suggestion on the bottle for a conditioner, made by the same company?
- If your product doesn’t really need to be used in conjunction with another product, there’s only one reason for saying it does: covering your arse in the event that the consumer has a complaint. That’s dishonest and tedious. Ditch the arse-covering blurb and use the space for useful information. The increased sales will make it worth it.
- Today I did some free user testing for you. Three people tried to find a product for cleaning garden furniture and all three of them went straight to the weedkiller aisle. Please start stocking a garden furniture cleaner in your weedkiller aisle.
- Today I gave your branch staff some free customer feedback. I explained that I needed a product you don’t currently stock. I explained that the blurb on one of the products you do stock identifies this product as essential for a given task (treating garden furniture). One member of staff ignored me (fair enough, she was busy) and the other tried to convince me that I didn’t really need the product I was after. I’m all for anti-capitalist gestures but I doubt the company’s owners feel the same. You need a system in place for handling customer feedback. If someone tells a staff member “I’d like to buy X, which you don’t stock,” you need a way for that information to be heard. If someone says “I’d like to buy X, and if you don’t have X then I’m not going to bother buying Y, which you do stock,” that information needs to be heard even more urgently.
As for me, I’ll probably end up buying online. After all, I can google “linseed oil” and get a site that will actually sell me linseed oil. Even with postage, that’s cheaper than Robert Dyas. And if I get confused about what their blurb means by “wood preservative”, I can search the site for “wood preservative” and find some. And if I start to worry I’m going about this all the wrong way, I can Google. Less entertaining than talking to Blondie and Plainclothes Man, but much, much easier.
Edit: I should add that the furniture treatment I picked up in the shop was Cuprinol Ultimate Hardwood Furniture Oil. The manufacturer is the catchily-named ICI Paints AkzoNobel.