Don't forget the customer

A Web site can be completely undone by poor design, inadequate testing and rotten or nonexistent customer service. Indeed, I would argue that the user's experience on your site is perhaps the key element of customer service: If you're interacting with a customer through your Web site and you do a bad job, isn't that bad customer service?

This is an important issue to keep in mind as agencies move toward implementing electronic government. I was recently reminded of the importance of users' Web experience when I visited a Web site on a Saturday to order a publication. The site was pleasing to look at and organized into sections logically. I found the section of interest, browsed the publications, selected one and clicked a button to add that publication to my "shopping cart." By clicking a second button, I could "view contents of cart" and verify that the cart indeed contained the booklet I desired. So far, so good.

I then moved to a different section of the site and looked for another publication. I found it and again clicked the button to add the new publication. Thinking I was done, I clicked the "checkout" link. Surprise! Only the last publication was displayed.

I tried putting one item and then the other into the cart. I even got to the point where I could put an item in the cart and then immediately display the contents — but the cart kept mysteriously emptying itself.

A shopping cart is simply a set of data variables that holds information about the items a user wants to purchase. The cart information must be stored somewhere. Depending on the technology a site uses, the data might be stored in a database, in variables in a business object or even in a Web page. And depending on site navigation, the Webmaster might want the information to reset automatically: For example, if somebody comes into a page by typing the URL directly, that process could initialize the cart variables.

Above all, the cart should not be re-initialized when a user has put items in it and is ready to complete the transaction. If the site builders had done "stories" or use cases before building the site, one of them should have been "user orders publications from different sections." And during testing, such a scenario should have been the basis for one of the test cases.

I finally gave up on my transaction, having ordered only one item. I wanted to call customer service and have them straighten out the situation and add a second item to my order (after all, two separate orders mean two minimum shipping charges). But this site is admirable in its consistency: Having fouled up my order, I found that customer service was only available from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, CST. Thoroughly defeated, I took my business to Amazon.com.

The lesson for agencies? Pick comprehensive "stories" or use cases, perform thorough testing — and remember that people may need help using your Web sites outside of normal working hours.

—Bragg is an independent consultant and systems architect with extensive experience in the federal market. He welcomes your questions and topic suggestions at tbragg@acm.org.

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