“’Cause the technology is just gonna get better and better and it’s gonna get easier and easier and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable to sit alone with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money and that’s fine in low doses but if it’s the basic main staple of your diet you’re gonna die.”
And after, when We went outside to look at her finished lantern from the road, I said I liked the way her light shone through the face that flickered in the dark. —“Jack O’Lantern,” Katrina Vandenberg in Atlas
This is an except from one of my favorite poems. John Green used it in the epigraph of his novel (and my favorite book) Paper Towns.
I’d highly encourage you to read the entire piece in Katrina Vandenberg’s collection called Atlas: Poems.
It’s four-o-clock in the morning. The streetlight is a small, fuzzy sun, haunting your cul-de-sac. Toothbrush in mouth, you reach for your buzzing phone. The lock screen shows both a text message from a five-digit phone number and new email appearing across your iPhone’s lock screen: “JetBlue Flight Notification — Important Flight Information | Cancelled”. (Read More on Design For Flight)
Interactive voice response systems are fascinating. This clear touch point has the power to calm frustrated travelers or enrage those already on the brink of a meltdown. Such a system, while lacking a graphical user interface, is by no means less designed.
Due to one of the (many!) online security breaches, my Simple bank account numbers became compromised and required me to close-and-reopen my bank account. (Why can’t account numbers be re-generated on-demand?) During the process of closing, and re-opening my Simple account, I opened a backup Wells Fargo account.
Together We'll Wait on Hold
I was able to set up my account by walking into an impressive, original Wells Fargo branch building. About sixty minutes later, I was all set up. This was not my first Wells Fargo account. As a child, I opened a savings account with First Union. First Union merged into Wachovia, which merged into Wells Fargo during the recent financial crisis.
However, as a “new customer” Wells Fargo did not have historical purchasing data for me. The bank was terribly nervous letting me spend my money. Instead, quietly block my debit card and let me find out when I tried to buy something next.
Wells isn’t the only bank that proactively deactivates customers cards when they suspect fraud. Anyone can get their card blocked. Just buy two tanks of gas and some shoes. Most financial institutions have evolved to text customers the minute the anti-fraud algorithms raise a flag.
For Wells Fargo customs, you should receive receive a text message or call to confirm your recent purchases. Unfortunately for me, these alerts never came through. Instead, when I swiped, and my purchase was declined, I called the number on the back of your card. Which goes something like this:
Call 1–800-TO-WELLS, their general line.
Are prompted to say your account or card number. Though, using the keypad does work. Saying your card number out loud in public is incredibly insecure.
Are prompted to say (again, not great if you’re in public) the last four digits of your Social Security Number.
Are prompted to say (seriously?) your debit card PIN.
Reach the main menu. The IVR has no knowledge of your blocked card.
The IVR responds: “I understand you want to speak to a banker but first, can you tell me a little about what you’re calling about.”
Calling is a last-result option. Relied on only when online options for managing my account have been exhausted. If I use a secret trap-door word like ‘agent,’ ‘representative,’ or ‘operator,’ I mean business.
Sheepishly say ’my card has been declined.’
Listen as the IVR responds: “I think you’re calling about Wells Fargo products, is that right?”
Sigh, exasperatedly, because even though that isn’t technically why I’m calling, I’m not going to correct you.
The first 3 seconds of their 30-second-loop song starts playing.
Hear “We’re currently experiences unusually high call volumes right now, press 1 to return to the automated system.”
Wells Fargo is always experiencing a huge cal volume, no matter what time of day, day of the week, or financial shitstorm is currently happening.
Companies who state that they are experiencing a higher than usual call volume are unconsciously expressing two things. First, that their products or services are unreliable, confusing, or in some state that requires their customer to regularly call in. And two, that they are chronically understaffed.
Wait for 15–20 minutes for a banker to answer the phone, unaware of who I am, what my account needs help, or why I’m calling. All of my details are reverified, making my time spent with your lovely IVR a waste.
Explain that I need my card unblocked, as I’m trying to buy dinner, and this half-hour card-declining world I’m in is quite frustrating and embarrassing.
Listens as the banker spends 2–3 minutes looking for the ‘unblock card’ option on their poorly designed backend.
The banker then says, “Let me verify some transactions here” At which point they begin to list all the transactions made in the last 3–5 days.
Hear: “Okay, Mr. Carlson, you card is in the queue to be unblocked. It should be ready to use within 90 seconds.”
I politely, but quickly hangup while they say “Thanks for being a Wells Far—”
I wait with the merchant a minute and a half. Oddly, instead of waiting for the 90 seconds before telling me the card is operational, they offload that delay to me. If I try to use my card in that 90-second window, it resets the block, and I have to call back in. Nightmarish.
Wells Fargo makes an embarrassing, nerve-wracking experience worse by not informing anyone ahead of time that I’m calling about a declined card. They have blocked my card so often; I’m surprised their system doesn’t call to alert you (via text, email or phone call) when it happens. Many Wells Fargo bankers and phone reps have told me that I should receive alerts and ways to allow access without needing to call. Unfortunately, it has never happened.
Forcing customers to wade through 20 minutes hold times to make a purchase is criminal. If you can’t implement an automated system for clearing transactions, have a dedicated queue for those with blocked cards.
Wells Fargo is the largest bank in the world, and with it comes the expectations that they can proactively manage security and fraud concerns. IVR is just as important to design as your online banking experience. It’s another touchpoint, and should be considered carefully.
Recently, I’ve spent a good amount of time clearing notifications from my iOS lock screen and Notification Center. More email notifications and push alerts pour down every minute, covering everything from what ‘Millennials are killing next’ to a selfie a friend-of-a-friend posted on Instagram.
Much of this rift raft can be seemingly blamed on veiled attempts for companies to boost engagement numbers. Let’s look at Facebook’s Yammer knock-off, known as Facebook Workplace.
My employer tried Facebook Workplace for roughly one week before quietly abandoning it. Facebook, seemingly feeling lonely at night, began to postmark periodic emails to me containing “recent“ notifications. Again, perhaps this behavior would be acceptable if team mates were @mentioning me. One could indeed stretch the logic to include summary updates from groups I’m a member of. (Though drip notification campaigns to re-engage users seem dubious at best.)
No, no, no. The notifications Facebook emails to all our employees are their own platform’s “inactivity notifications” that they themselves generate. Facebook is inventing notifications to have a reason to notify us that we haven’t made anything notification-worthy recently.
Facebook Workplace Invented Notifications
Clicking through left me with these notifications
Invented notifications are dark patterns. Inactivity reports and growth hacking type reminders that I didn’t specifically enable are dark patterns. Unless you’re a rare unicorn user, I doubt you like reminders to use a given app. I doubt any user regularly is thrilled that Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram is reminding me about another cousin— twice removed — exciting day.
Tumblr's awesome notification spam
Apple even has a (loosely enforced) App Store guideline around such spammy notifications. Rumor has it that the reviews team threatened to pull Tumblr multiple times over their egregious push spam. I wish they had followed through with that threat.
Apple App Store Review Guidelines on notification spam
At least we can look to wonderful companies like Duolingo who automatically disable notifications when they aren’t effective. Though, to be completely honest, their rhetoric could be less disheartening. (Perhaps the notifications could quietly vanish, disappearing into the early hours of the morning like tertiary party guests. Popping up again to check in once you re-open the app, and only then asking you to clarify your notification tolerance levels.)
Duolingo stops sending push notifications if you ignore them
Designers and product managers working for these popular applications have the ability to interrupt millions of lives on a regular basis. Vibrate millions of pockets. Interrupt thousands of important conversations. Embarrass hundreds of users projecting their phones or laptops onto conference room screens. Escalate dozens of arguments between parents and teens when the latter becomes distracted by a notification during a particularly long lecture and breaks contact to check the alert— only to find their attempt to find a minor reprieve backfired, leaving weeks before their phone privileges are restored.
It’s a power that comes with a great responsibility. I hope you’ll take it seriously.