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This is a cautionary tale for web designers and those who love them.

Despite my efforts to change all my notifications to “paperless,” sometimes I still receive letters in the mail from large companies. Strangely, many companies still send out paper statements and notifications as a follow-up to identical notices they deliver through email. While I predict this phenomenon will fade away within the next five years, I’ll save that for another post.

My present concern stems from a recent letter I received from my health insurance provider. While I’d like to think I’ve got a good head on my shoulders, sometimes I still fall victim to poor design.

At the top, their letter said (and I paraphrase here), “You owe $270.” Fair enough. I recalled signing up for automatic bill-pay, but if they want to send me a statement saying I still owe money, seems like I might need to call in and ask someone to explain.

The next paragraph further down says, “This is Not a Bill.” “What a relief,” I thought. “So automatic bill-pay is working just like I planned. Glad I won’t have to call anyone after all.”

At the bottom of the letter was a tear-away stating, “Write here how much you would like to pay, and return it to us in the enclosed envelope.” Wait… first it’s a bill, then it’s not a bill, then it’s a bill again? So I visited the online bill-pay section of my health insurance provider’s website to learn more… and I was greeted with a notice that my account had been canceled.

At this point I was feeling baffled, confused, distraught, insecure… nothing like a leader. At the first opportunity I called one of their friendly representatives who explained:

  • The letter was simply a reminder that the $270 was deducted from my account according to automatic bill-pay. OK, that makes me feel better… but if you knew I was enrolled in automatic bill-pay, why send a letter postmarked before the withdrawal date (which is the same every month), saying that I owe $270?
  • The notice I received online, stating that my account had been cancelled, only referred to my online bill-pay account. My automatic bill-pay account was still active.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but if anyone else was greeted with the words, “Your Account Has Been Canceled,” on a website they know and trust, they would probably call in and ask for help. How many of this company’s customers are enrolled in automatic bill-pay? How many of them received a letter similar to mine? How many of them called in for help? Worst of all, how many of them missed the fine print and sent in a duplicate payment?

By this point I’m sure you can imagine the cost to this company rising rapidly. Trace this back to lost productivity from their call center staff (fielding calls from concerned customers) and their accounting team (reimbursing duplicate payments). All because of a confusing letter and an even more misleading website.

How many people were involved in this project to send out a letter to those customers enrolled in automatic bill-pay? Did anyone ever stop to think what actions people might take upon receiving such a letter? Did anyone review the online bill-pay web site to make sure that it would reassure people who logged in to check their account, instead of causing them even greater distress?

If you design anything, whether it be a website or a five-course dinner, envision every step of your audience’s experience without bias, assumptions, or hope. You can see how many points of friction there were in the letter above, and this was relatively minor. I’ve seen entire customer service departments brought to their knees because of one mistaken assumption from upper management.

Good design is not “nice-to-have.” It is essential for the life of your business. Good design is the invitation that welcomes your customers, the guide that teaches them, and the prize that rewards them. Poor design is just as bad as poor customer service: it leaves a bitter taste that’s more likely to be shared.

Create something that makes people want to come back for more.


Sometimes, though, a little bitterness elevates the entire meal. Enjoy this recipe for Sauteed Dandelion with Garlic from Mark Bittman, which can just as easily be made with Broccoli Raab. Personally, I’d go for his minced ginger variation.