About two weeks ago as soon as I arrived at work one of my colleagues called me to blog about an annoying issue that he was experiencing with a mobile app called Rebtel. Apparently his multiple support calls only led him to believe that they don’t understand his issue, so he asked me if I can have one of these visual guides to the problem so that he can show it to the support. I was more than happy to hear his story but that day I learned something new: little detail can make a huge difference. Now let’s see what it was.
Rebtel is a cheap international call service (Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee that it will be really cheap as many users have been complaining about it). It has a mobile application that allows you to call and send SMS over the Internet. My colleague decided to give it a try and that is how lots of misunderstandings with his girlfriend started.
He has several numbers from his girlfriend but he doesn’t remember which one is the mobile phone. Rebtel has two user interaction flows for sending SMS:
- from the contact list
- from the SMS tab
In order to send SMS from the main contact list, open the Contacts tab of the application and first search for a name:
Then open the contact and choose Send SMS from the list:
Rebtel shows you a list of numbers and you have to choose one of them for sending SMS:
OK, here is the glitch: from programmers’ perspective at this stage user is supposed to choose a phone and then he will go to the screen for writing SMS. But it’s not all that simple. The user doesn’t know which one is a number he can send SMS to. My colleague said that there were several occasions where he sent an SMS but didn’t get any reply and it created a lot of confusion but then later he found out that he didn’t send the SMS to her mobile number. This issue is not only for Rebtel. It can happen for regular mobile phones as well because it’s basically the same flow. The user has to remember which of these numbers are a mobile phone. Unfortunately it is not very easy to identify a mobile phone number from another country so easily. But it can be argued that you must at least remember those numbers for your girlfriend. I’m not sure if everyone can remember international numbers! Not my colleague at least! That is the idea behind labels and titles for each phone number in contact information. So let’s see what happens for the other SMS-sending interaction flow. You go to the SMS tab:
Then you touch that little blue contact button to find your contact. But there is a little different in this interaction flow! The list has a default number:
It can mean: the programmers of Rebtel android application could show a default number even in the other SMS-sending interaction flow but for whatever reason they don’t. But wait a minute. I had to try it by myself. I took the phone and clicked on the name of various contacts to see what is this default number based upon? I couldn’t find any pattern. For some contacts it chose a mobile phone number and for some it chose a land line number. In other words, this default number feature was just an illusion adding to the confusion of using this app.
I went a little further and actually set the default number on a contact. Then closed it and opened it again and tada: it forgot my choice and jumped to the wrong default number that Rebtel suggested. In other words, there is no way but remembering your contact’s phone number.
One of the things that I really like about professional customer support and salesmanship is: the customer is always right. I try to have this attitude when creating user interfaces. The user should never ever feel stupid because of a interaction with a machine. If the user feels bad or shoots himself in the foot, it is the interaction designer to blame not to user.
Now the joke of the day is: Rebtel told him that maybe his issue is because his phone is rooted. True story! My colleague said his phone is not rooted, but I believe even if his phone was rooted, why should another application maliciously change the behavior of Rebtel? In other words: why instead of putting the customer first and trying to solve his problem, why did they condemn the user for something that isn’t even true? My colleague was so frustrated not only because of this software bug, but also because of the kind of support that he got.
So, to sum it up there are at least 3 issues:
- It doesn’t show a default number when you find a contact from contact list
- It offers a semi-random default numbers for the contacts you choose from the SMS tab’s contact lookup
- It cannot even remember your choice of default number and jumps back to what it likes to show as the default
My goal in this blog is not to criticize software bugs. I’m sure if the developers knew that such a simple issue creates so much frustration and dissatisfaction, they would fix it. But there is something we can learn from this story: always do user tests during the development. This is such a simple issue that even a 10 minute user test for sending SMS would reveal it. Yet the developers didn’t take the time to do a good job and instead of having a solid feature, they ended up with a cluttered and confusing user experience. Now I’m sure Rebtel doesn’t even care about reading this post (they didn’t reply my previous post either), but I’m sure my blog is not rooted! ;)
The solution is mostly about debugging but there are ways to improve the user interaction as well:
- If there are multiple numbers for a contact, show an SMS icon in front of the ones that are mobile numbers. If it is not possible to tell which one is which, let the user send SMS just by pressing a SMS icon on the “Mobile phone” record of the contact rather than pressing the separate “Send SMS” button at the bottom of the screen.
- Let the user know the last number he send an SMS with a little History icon next to the number. Also remember the last number as the default choice.