All I needed was a little reassurance

It was nearing midnight. Day 1 of our first real family vacation. Destination Yellowstone Park. I paced the Comfort Inn parking lot somewhere near Minnesota’s Mall of America, my cell phone to my ear. I listened to repeating loops of hold music. The family snuggled upstairs in the hotel room, revelling in hundreds of cable channels we don’t have at home. 

This overnight in the midwest was unplanned. We had awakened that morning at the crack of dawn, driven to the Philadelphia airport, and sailed through security. Walking into our departure gate, we got the news that the first of our two flights was delayed due to mechanical issues. We would miss our connecting flight. I had a sinking feeling we’d have to drive back home and start our trip again tomorrow.  

Hope in the form of an airline rep

When I approached the airline rep at the gate for advice, she just asked my name. She smiled and assured me she could help. After tapping for a moment on her computer, she said we could fly out of Philly as planned, and that our connecting tickets would transfer to tomorrow’s first flight. She instructed me to check in via the mobile app after our first flight landed in Minneapolis. 

My heart soared. Even though we’d sleep in Minnesota instead of Montana, our trip would begin. 

The flight was smooth. The kids enjoyed their movies and beverage service. The adults enjoyed our inflatable neck pillows. We cancelled our intended hotel and found a room here in MN, a perfectly comfortable Comfort Inn. Once it was settled who was sleeping in which bed and who got to hold the TV remote, I went outside for some quiet and fresh air. 

I was pretty sure our flight for tomorrow was all set. Pretty sure. 

I opened the airline’s mobile app. It asked for my confirmation number (which I’d memorized by then) and responded with a big yellow “Check In” button. I checked in our bags, acknowledged all the hazardous items we weren’t carrying, and tapped all the OKs. The app seemed to be done with me. The mini elation of having kept vacation on track filled my chest. 

But the app didn’t give me any mobile boarding passes. And when I returned to the home screen, that big yellow “Check In” button appeared again. 

I was pretty sure our flight for tomorrow was all set. 

Pretty sure. 

But sometimes “pretty sure” doesn’t cut it. Like when Yellowstone Park awaits you and you’re at a Comfort Inn somewhere near the Mall of America. 

Clear reassurance is a requirement for users

Our job as user experience designers is to give users easy access to the tools they need to perform the tasks they need to do. A too-often overlooked part of that job is to let them know – for sure – when they have completed a task. We do this through:

  • Confirmation and thank you pages.
  • Providing the actual product of their labors.
  • Updated design states that reflect a new status.

In these ways, we assure them they’re done, they can move on, they can get back to their vacation. I did not get this assurance from the airlines app. 

So, I did what website and app users across the globe do when they aren’t sure if the darn thing is working. I dialed the 1-800 number. 

I entered a string of touch tone responses. A recorded voice informed me that all representatives were busy helping other customers. It said that my wait time would be “long,” and encouraged me to check out the airline’s website or mobile app. I resolved to wait it out, however long it took. 

It took about 12 seconds. 

Tired irritation was billowing up under my can-do, beginning-of-trip, patient-parent attitude. The voice reminded me every so often that I could be using the website or app. After 28 minutes (thank you, iPhone, for counting), a human came on the line. He sounded tired too, but maybe I was projecting. He asked for my confirmation number, and said that we were checked into tomorrow’s flight. 

It took about 12 seconds. 

I asked if he was sure, saying the app wasn’t clear. He said he was sure. He didn’t offer an explanation about why the app still showed me that “Check In” button. Nor did he sound surprised that I’d called.  

I said thanks, and no, there was nothing else he could help me with tonight. 

Sighing and pocketing my phone, I ascended the Comfort Inn elevator, tiptoed into our darkened room, and joined my snoring family, an hour after they’d fallen asleep. 

Moral of the story: If your website or app helps your users complete important tasks, and then ONLY MOSTLY tells them that they have done so, it might as well not exist.