March 31, 2006

When the Internet Doesn’t Work

Users love and value the internet for its efficiencies. When it works. But when internet systems hiccup, people can become annoyed or discouraged or even turn away from their computers. Probably the most notorious example of internet breakdown occurs when spam filters hijack real email messages, unbeknownst to the sender or receiver.

I’ve experienced two examples of another kind of breakdown in simple web-based applications during the last week, both of which caused increased work, time, and doubt on all sides.

First, I telephoned the bottled water service to skip a delivery. After I’d been on hold for a long time, a recording finally told me I could go to the website and register my message there. So, of course I did. I submitted my request, which the online application confirmed. Three days later, the delivery man showed up with my water.

Second, I got an email message from my dentist, reminding me to confirm an upcoming appointment via their website. Same story. I clicked to confirm, and three days later, the dental receptionist telephoned to remind me of my appointment. When we talked about the check and double-check in person, the receptionist said, “It happens all the time.” The patient thinks she has confirmed the appointment, but the office rarely hears about it.

I wonder how common my experiences are and what they mean. Are the online trailblazers just working out the kinks for all the rest who’ll follow? Or will these seeds of frustration and doubt thrive and ultimately discourage all the rest from even trying?

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