OPINION recent thoughts from the ’nauts

I don’t design web sites

posted by Peter Osborne on 17 Sep 2015

After 20 years working in the tech industry I’m still never quite sure how to succinctly explain what I do to people I meet. Not being a 20-something hipster I am definitely not a persona-led user experience engineer. More often than not I’ll simply tell people that I ‘design websites’. But I don’t. At least not in the way they think. Perhaps I should explain…

In our recent consultancy projects we’ve found that a surprising number of business leaders still think of a ‘website’ as a discrete asset – one that sits on a ’business for dummies’ checklist somewhere between having your logo designed and ensuring you have sufficient business cards. Lots of companies out there (such as 1&1 my website) will happily pander to that perception – enabling businesses to create sites that look as good as the professionally-designed competition for just a few quid a month. So, job done – right?

Not really. After all it’s not 2005 any more. (Wake up and smell the Cortardo already!) Your web site might look as good as a professionally-designed solution, but if it’s not helping data flow seamlessly within your organisation and between you and your customers it’s almost certainly costing your business money. Because online tech has evolved to the point where your 'website' can (and should) be the hub of your business, arbitrating the exchange of data and ensuring everyone has the information they need to do their job effectively.

This concept of an online business hub is something that WordPress, SalesForce, and Magento are all converging on (from their backgrounds in blogging, CRMs and e-commerce respectively). However, to deliver this wider functionality they often rely on third-party extensions. And so the shining promise of turnkey business functionality can often descend into a hellish mess of incompatible plugins that deliver 80% of the functionality you need (but not the 20% you really need).

This failure of the 'one size fits all' single vendor platform is leading more and more businesses to combine multiple off-the-shelf solutions. They’ll use one online product for their CRM, another for their store, and yet another for accounting and stock control. This has given rise to still more third-party services, APIs and plug-ins designed to help these disparate systems talk to one another. And just like before they mostly work (except when they don’t).

We recently worked with a company where one staff member spent half her day manually copying and pasting data from one online system to another. We’re now unpicking their business fundamentals with them in order to craft a system that works with their core business processes (instead of forcing them to try and fit a square peg into a round hole). It’s quite an investment, but then so is paying for three off-the-shelf systems that turn staff members into demoralised (and error-prone) data-input drones.

The real positive of getting this all down on (virtual) paper is that I’m a lot clearer about what it is that we do as a company. We build online systems that enable our clients to work efficiently and, more importantly, in exactly the way they want to.

We don’t build websites.

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If Three really want to #makeitright they’d do well to start close to home.

posted by Peter Osborne on 08 Jun 2015

The mobile phone network Three launched their #makeitright campaign last Friday. If you’ve not caught it yet, it’s all about fixing “stuff that sucks” in the mobile phone industry. Whilst it’s a laudable aim (and clever marketing) Three might want to take another look at their own iOS app for PAYG, because it sucks to the point it’s lost them a customer (me). Let me explain…

A little background

With No.1 son starting secondary school next September we were looking for a good PAYG deal for his hand-me-down iPhone. Although I've tended to alternate between O2 and EE on contract, neither provider had a compelling offer for the sort of usage I’m expecting the boy will need on PAYG. Three, on the other hand, looked awesome - 3p min for voice, 2p a text and 1p per MB for data. So we popped in to the local Three store and picked up a SIM, downloaded the Three app for iOS, and were good to go.

Yet, within a week we’d ported his number to a more expensive deal with GiffGaff. Why? Mostly because Three's iOS app for topping up and monitoring usage (a vital tool for an 11 year-old learning to budget their phone usage) is the worst thing I've seen in a long time – a truly execrable user experience. Honestly, I’m astounded:

(a) That a mobile phone company can release a product that works so badly on a mobile phone.
That Apple has approved an app which lets users make in-app purchases with no user confirmation.

So, WHY DOES the Three app suck so badly?

Well, things began to fall apart pretty much as soon as we opened the app. First off we wanted to check the the boy’s balance. Except we couldn’t. Because apparently you can only access the Three app over cellular. And in most of our house (unless you stand on tiptoe and lean perilously far out the attic window) there’s no Three signal. So I turn off a perfectly good wifi connection on the phone and lean out of said attic window. I jab my finger at the screen to reload the app every time I get a brief sniff of a signal. Bad move. Apparently I’ve just clicked on ‘Buy 3000 Three to Three minutes’. For £5. With no confirmation! For goodness sake! The boy doesn’t even know anyone else on Three! At this point I briefly think about ringing Three to complain but, honestly, I’m not sure it’s worth it’s worth hanging on hold for half-an-hour to recover the £5

So, with our first lesson learned (don’t click on anything without reading it first) we delve deeper into the app. And it’s truly awful – in most places little more than a set of bookmarks for a non-responsive website out of 1998. Honestly, it’s difficult to describe in words – so here’s a few screenshots.

Figure 1: The Three app home page. Oh look! They’ve included a game! After checking it out (and concluding the makers of Angry Birds have nothing to fear) we click on ‘My Account’ to get started

Figure 2: What me and the boy mostly see whenever we load the app and click on ‘My Account’. It would be massively helpful if we could use the wifi connection in our house rather than risking life and limb by leaning out the attic window to try and get a mobile phone signal. Given every other provider I've used let’s you access your account via wifi, why can’t Three do the same?

Figure 3: Now we’re trying to load credit. We’ve been redirected to a web browser and the page which doesn’t even scale correctly for mobile! So we zoom in to see what information is available here. They’re showing my current balance, which is a start but there’s not much else to see here.


If Three need guidance on what a good app should look like they should take the lead from Spark NZ. I used PAYG on Spark on my last trip home to see the family – having decided I didn’t want to pay O2 £6/MB for data. The app was a joy to use and, as you can see from the pictures below, I can still access and manage my account, even though I'm back in the UK on O2.

Figure 4: Even though Spark’s offering is much more comprehensive than Three’s their app manages to clearly show:

(a) My current position across minutes, text and data (for both basic credit and add-ons)
(b) The details of my plans and add-ons
(c) My recent transactions and whether I have stopped any recurring add-ons

Figure 5: Unlike Three there’s no chance of buying something you don’t want with a single slip of a finger. It’s also spelt out what you’re getting and (if relevant) how often you’ll be charged for any recurring purchases.

Three’s great, it’s just the APP UX that sucks

This isn't about Three as a network. I really like their PAYG offering and their positioning. As a business we rely on a couple of MiFi’s and 'Feel At Home' data that keeps us connected in Europe and the USA. If their PAYG app was as good, I’d never have left. If they made it more like the Spark offering I have no doubt we’d be back. But as it stands I don’t think that’s going to happen in a hurry. The Three app has one of the lowest ratings I’ve seen in iTunes and users have been complaining about it for years. Come on Three #makeitright

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