14 AT&T Information Architecture Failures (or, how to kill time when outsourced customer service jerks you around)

Yes, AT&T sucks big, big balls. And not just cause they screwed me - they clearly have no idea how to actually structure an application, which I intend to prove here in a moment. But first, There's a bit of a precursor to this post... A little bit of perspective, if you will:

I paid my bill over the phone Aug. 1. The rep asked me what card, I said American Express. He hemmed and hawed, but then finally put me through to an automated payment system. I did the duty and it said everything was dandy.

On Aug. 13, my service stopped. So I called customer service (which was an ordeal, but I describe it in detail below). An hour of troubleshooting later - no kidding - someone finally discovers that I haven't paid my bill and my service was terminated. I was livid - and I was also passed to four seperate departments to get the situation fixed. All told, I spent five hours on the phone getting a service that shouldn't have been terminated, reinstated - and it took them 4 days to finally get it back up. The bottom line - the guy I called to pay my bill was a dipshit and put me into a "trial" system that wasn't actually ready for prime time, so my money was taken but the payment was never credited.

So, when the service finally came back on, it did so as NEW service - I've been getting mail from AT&T all week about my new DSL line, how to use it, what my new bill looks like, and so forth. It's been annoying, but livable.

Now, It's been raining in sheets here the past few days thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Fey. And when it rains in Atlanta, any number of things is bound to happen:

1) Traffic freezes to standstill (100% likelihood)
2) Power goes out (40% likelihood)
3) Some retarded endangered species of clam gets some extra runoff from Lake Lanier instead of the dried-up reserves and dams that need it, due to some arcane federal mandate (100% likelihood)
4) DSL service goes out (10% likelihood)

Yes, it was only a 10% likelihood, but it happened - my DSL chugged slowly, heaved, and died. And it wasn't just mine, it was most of the state - but I would only learn this at the tail end of a 2 hour 17 minute call to customer service.

See? 2 hours, 17 minutes.

I started my call by being forced to listen to a digital voice tell me about all the ways that AT&T DSL customer service could help me - but I couldn't push 0 (or any other key) to speed things up so they actually COULD. I just had to sit there and listen, until finally she said that they use a voice-based system to magically detect what it is I need.

I tried saying "technical support" and I was told that she didn't understand. So I angrily began pushing numbers until finally I was greeted with some hold music which indicated that I was going to be passed on to someone human.

And when I got there, the fireworks started.

Basically, this chick from India (but, to her credit, she had impeccable English) told me that she couldn't check the status of my line until I completed the new user registration.

"But I've been a customer for three years," I replied. "Why the hell would I complete new user registration?"

"Because," she started, and went on to explain that my reinstated line is set up as a brand new account. And they've set up their system to key on usernames. So I have to set up a username with their web-based application to associate it with my phone number.

"But my internet is down," I replied. "How do I do that?"

"I don't know," she answered. "Let me call an engineer."

So she did that. They walked me through connecting the modem directly to my computer (which is retarded), and the line began sputtering... SLOWLY. I mean, less than 1Kb a second.

"There's no way you can do this for me?" I asked.

"No, you have to do it," she said.

SOOOOO, she sent me to http://www.dslinstallation.bellsouth.net to begin the process.

It took literally five minutes for the page to load. Not just because my connection was slow, but because it was detecting all sorts of shit, and their web server was undergoing "maintainence." But when it finally loaded, this is what I saw:

No other text or messages telling you what it's doing or why... No browser detection amongst all this "detection" going on (which is important in a second). Nothing but blue dots moving all over the place. And the call was taking SO DAMN LONG, I figured out that I had nothing better to do than to critique AT&T's usability and information architecture decisions (which, I'll go ahead and give away, there are 12 of them and they are all bad).

Which brings us to Information Architecture (IA) Failure #1 and #2:

IA Failure #1: Never leave the user in suspense as to what it is you're doing with their experience. If you're loading items, tell them you're loading items. If you're detecting browser or connection speed or Javascript or if they've been surfing porn, tell them. This screen is useless without information, and if it hangs or takes a while (as it did in my case), it just pisses the user off.

IA Failure #2: THIS SHOULD NOT BE AN ONLINE APPLICATION. This should probably be #1, but I was discussing the screen itself when I brought it up, so screw it. This entire process of creating a username is done so that AT&T can assign a speed / account level (DSLExtreme, DSLBasic, DSLGoFuckYourself, etc) and so that they can test your line for speed and trouble. So, if there IS trouble... And you haven't registered yet... Well, you're stuck in a room full of mirrors, with your trouble staring back at itself. This is STUPID. The customer service reps should be empowered and trained to be able to do this process for you over the phone.

SO! After a 5 minute wait, I was greeted with this treat of a screen:

Not a horrible screen in it's own right, but there's a few problems with it:

IA Failure #3: Why give people two clicks (a radio button to select language, then a "next" button to continue) when you could just make two buttons - one for English and one for Spanish, and let them navigate with only one click?

IA Failure #4: Even if you've decided to go the 2-click route, sticking your button at the very bottom of the screen - even if the template is easier on your developers - isn't exactly easy when there's a ton of whitespace above it. I had to scroll to find it. It's not offset from the footer, it has no prioritization on the screen whatsoever.

Okay, so I made it past this one pretty easily, even though it was aggrevating and took about six minutes to load (I'm not joking about load times, by the way. And I know it's not because the page is poorly constructed, this was an extenuating circumstance, but I mention it to reiterate that I had plenty of time on this call to think about all these problems).

Once I chose my language, I was brought here:

... Wow. Where the hell do I begin? How about with that little ugly control on the bottom right:

IA Failure #5: NEVER USE VOICE TO TRY TO TELL A USER WHAT TO DO! This little "speaking installer" thing that began loading did quite a number of things to annoy me: 1) the "Next" button wouldn't load until their audio player application loaded, 2) the audio played without my controlling it, 3) the speaking voice gave me NO new information that wasn't already on the page. I get that they're probably trying to cater to 508 compliance (users with disabilities), but blind users already have assistive reader programs which - if you developed the page correctly - are already reading the text to them. And the deaf can't hear your stupid speech app anyway.

IA Failure #6: What's the point of this page anyway? Why is it here? Shouldn't the "Welcome to blah de blah" be on the first page? I mean, I know you wanted me to choose my language, but that should have happened before the "detecting whatever" page, and would have been done better as a split-screen page with english on the left (with a "continue in english" button) and spanish on the right (with the same button for spanish). THEN you detect my whatnots, then you let me get on with the show.

IA Failure #7: What's with the Cancel icon and button? When I press that, it takes me to the "detecting blah de blah" page and starts the cycle again. Why? Why is it at the bottom left, if it's going to be there at all?

After this, I was taken to the End User License Agreement.

Other than the fact that they tried to read the whole thing to me, and that I had to wait for the speech app to load to get any usable controls on the page, it's not a bad page. I have one complaint:

IA Failure #8: If you are going to make your progression disabled until an action happens on the page (in this case, you cannot click "next" until you check that you agree to the EULA), TELL THE USER PLZKTHX. Either near the checkbox, or when I try to click "Next" without checking the box. Don't just let me sit there and click stupidly.

And now, we get to the page that caused me to launch into a tirade with the poor foreign girl on the phone who clearly had no hand in developing this piece of crap, or in the decision to make this process manditory before she could help me:

... Guess what the minimum requiremet I didn't meet was?

I used Firefox. I know this because once I saw the screen, the rep told me that "Yes, Safari and IE are supported, Firefox is not."

Get ready, here comes the salvo:

IA Failure #8: All that nonsense with detecting whatnots in the first stage? DETECT MY DAMN BROWSER and tell me when it won't do the job.

IA Failure #9: At the VERY least, tell me on THIS page what the hell I didn't do or have that caused failure.

IA Failure #10: The CDROM connects to the net to do all of this. I checked. It's just an implementation of the explorer.dll with a custom interface. Still a web-based process. Still wrong and stupid. (For the record, the .dmg file is NOT on the CD ROM I received, so I couldn't have skipped any of this anyway)

IA Failure #11: SUPPORT FIREFOX for chrissake. It's in use by almost 40% of the home market. There is NOTHING at all coming up in this flow that mandated that I use Safari or IE, because the end of this "flow" takes me to a downloadable application that completes the task (which is it's own IA failure, in just a minute). You can auto-download or link to an application file just as easily in Firefox as you can in anything else.

*deep breath* Okay. So I had to close out Firefox and start up Safari, and go through nearly 25 minutes of slow-loading pain to get past the point of the EULA to get here:

So, all of this browser work just to end at a downloadable application.

IA Failure #12: Why is there a skip option? You cannot complete the process until you download the app. Skip does nothing for you.
IA Failure #13: Why is this even happening? I mean... Why? Why can't this just be completed via this site? Because when you go through the application's screens, it's connecting here anyway:

(This pic is from the downloaded DMG file, which will be reviewed in just a second.)

SO WHY THE HELL can't you just finish this process from the browser? Why force a 1.3MB download on a user who's already connected to a slow connection (you can't get your 2, 3 or 6MB/sec connection without registering, so you connect slowwwww by default).

After all of this, I download the app:

No real complaints about this screen BY ITSELF, but if you take into account that this shouldn't even be happening, yeah, it's all kinds of wrong.

So, now time to run the app:

It takes its sweet time loading, treating me to pretty much the same screen you see in the browser in failure #1. I didn't even bother to get a screenshot of it, because - like i said - it's the SAME SCREEN. As in, literally the same - served from the same server, for the same purpose... Just tucked neatly into this little shell of an application.

And besides, I've already ripped on it enough. So I'm moving on into the app:

Guess what? These are HTML screens. This app simply surfs to the web and feeds them to you.

It SHOULDN'T be a download - but furthermore, it SHOULDN'T be purely web-based anyway.

So, basically, this is where I stopped taking screenshots, because I got so fed up with the length of time it took just to get this done that I started playing Kill Monty:

You HAVE to love a game that, when you click "Story Mode", it simply says "SHOOT EVERYTHING!!!!" in huge red letters and starts the game.

Once the entire process was completed, she was able to determine the problem with my line.

Are you ready? After all of this, are you excited to find out what the problem with my line is?

"There is a widespread outage in the area of Atlanta, Georgia."

She couldn't just check that in the beginning.

She couldn't be updated herself that there is a widespread outage in my area by a system alert.

She had to guide me through a horrific, poorly-planned registration process to dig into the system and find out that my connection was slow, sporadic and ultimately OUT COMPLETELY (which it became about 2 minutes after we finished this process) due to a widespread outage in my city.

Well, this calls for:

IA Failure #14: OH MY FUCKING GOD put this on the phone the second I call in! You know where I'm calling from - YOU OWN THE DAMN LINE. You can look up my number. Aside from that, the second I told the girl what my number was (which she should know anyway, since I called from it and YOU OWN THE DAMN LINE), she should get an alert on her screen saying "Hey, there's a widespread outage in the area where this number resides - and it may not have a username associated with it, but it still resides in Atlanta, GA so we should know this very basic goddamn fact."

So, that's how I spent my Sunday. And just to remind you:

It took me two hours and seventeen minutes just to find this crap out.

Have a good day.