What's with the attitude?

This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.

Webmasters ignore user complaints at their peril

Peter Seebach (crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net)

September 2001

When users complain about sites, webmasters frequently respond with hostility, derision, condescension, or just plain silence. No wonder users rarely bother to complain. Bad attitudes stand between the site you created and the site your users want to use.

Handling complaints

Once upon a time, I wanted to buy a game. So, I went to the Web site for the company that sold this game, I browsed their online store, I found something I wanted, and I clicked the "Add to cart" button.

Nothing happened.

I tried again. I poked around. It turned out that the page used JavaScript, and you could not add an item to a cart without it. I wrote the webmaster to complain. His response was:

"As this is the only such comment in 2 years of the e-store, and 6 years of the Web site, I feel safe in assuming that your opinion is not widely held."

This is a pretty rude response. It's also an outright lie. I frequent a newsgroup related to the products sold in that particular store, and the unusability of the Web site is a regular topic of discussion. I may have been the only person to bother to write them and complain...but I somehow doubt it, since my mother reported a similar problem when she tried to order a game, and spent quite some time asking the store's support staff to help her. She eventually gave up; the online store couldn't be made to work with her computer.

(For that matter, how much does it tell us that the webmaster had gotten no complaints about JavaScript in the last six years, given that the scripting language had only existed for about four and a half when he wrote me?)

So, what did the webmaster do? He took a useful piece of feedback, and dropped it. He contributed to the outright contempt in which the online community holds his page. The page's awfulness has become an ongoing topic of discussion. It's impressive -- for a few days, you couldn't see one of the main product pages with any version of Netscape released at the time, because he didn't think to close a <TABLE> tag. (Curiously, this stayed unfixed for three days, until about an hour after an e-mail I sent them explaining why it wasn't working. I never got a response.)

Obviously, the site is still broken, and impressively so. Every week or so, someone comes by the newsgroup and asks about problems with the site, and gets a chorus of "yes, it's broken" responses. And so far, the people who run the site have been unwilling to admit that just maybe there's a problem.

It's hard to estimate how much this costs. The company's products are also sold in a large number of retail outlets -- but direct sales have a much better margin in most cases. Damage to the company's reputation is significant, though. And with no indication that the webmaster wants to hear complaints, or do anything about them, why should I bother reporting errors, even if they're easy to fix? The webmaster has essentially told me he doesn't care whether I can use his page.

What should he have done?

Every complaint represents ten thousand users

One of the most-quoted (and unverified, I'm afraid) statistics indicates that, for every complaint you actually get, ten thousand people were mad at you but didn't bother to write. This is certainly the case with spam (where this figure can be verified by comparing complaints to the size of the list run), and it seems likely to be true with Web pages. After all, what's in it for me if I complain about your page? In most cases, something between "nothing" and "derision."

So, take any complaint seriously, webmasters. Don't treat it as one isolated user; assume that a lot of other users are having the same problem, but are too busy to do that part of your job -- and it is your job to make sure your page stays functional.

Don't dismiss a small number of complaints; think about why those people are complaining. Remember, in most contexts, they are paying /you/. Their opinions of how the relationship goes should drive your decisions. A company with unhappy customers is a company with cash flow problems.

Express gratitude

This may sound intuitive, but apparently it's not. If users take the time to give you feedback -- even hostile feedback -- on your page, thank them. You've just gotten free user input. You know, the kind of thing companies pay focus groups to obtain.

Find a workaround

If you can't fix the problem immediately (say, your page requires a substantial rework), try to find a short-term solution. If the customer is having trouble with a link, provide an alternative link, if one can be made. If the customer can't download a file, make the file available somewhere else, or offer to mail it. (Don't e-mail large binaries without asking permission, though.)

If all else fails, try to find a non-Web solution. If the customer can't use your shopping cart, see if you can arrange for a sales rep to call. (If you normally charge less for Web orders, be sure to give the customer the preferred rate; charging more for your own mistakes is unacceptable.)

Fix the problem

In contrast to the above experience, I once discovered a problem with the Web page for Powell's Books. I had created a second account, and discovered that there was no "log out" button to let me switch from one account to the other. I wrote the webmaster to explain my dilemma. Eleven minutes later, I had an answer -- a URL I could go to log out. Obviously, I found this experience much more pleasant, and to this day, I go out of my way to report any errors I spot on the Powell's page. Not that there are many, but when I see them, I report them -- and they get fixed.

When you fix a problem, you let people know that their reports are appreciated. Most people will happily send in a report if they believe it'll be appreciated; fundamentally, people like helping each other. Users will be proofreading your page; it's better that they tell you, so you can correct the errors, than that they tell someone else, who can laugh at you.

This week's action item: Arrange for someone to surreptitiously send a complaint about some aspect of your Web page. See what (if any) response the complaint gets.


About the author

Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.