Article  |  UX

Empathy is just a few words away

Reading time: Less than a minute

I recently received a welcome packet in the mail from our overpriced health insurance provider, which encouraged me to head to their web site to setup my account. They assure me that it is going to change how I manage my health! (For the better!)

During one—of several—steps during the registration process I am asked to choose a username. So I fill one in, proceed through the remainder of the form, press ‘submit’ and…. not only do they wipe out a number of the fields I populated (password, membership info, etc…), but they go on to tell me that the information I provided is invalid.

I can’t help but imagine some overworked developers hiding in their cubicles somewhere adding this kind of validation into the application. From their perspective, they’re protecting their data and anything that doesn’t comply is invalid. The language used shifts the responsibility to the end user, essentially saying “you’re doing something wrong!” Where is there empathy in the line “the information contains incomplete or invalid entries.” While I appreciate that they provided me with a few options to consider I still feel like my first engagement with the system was extremely impersonal, which isn’t what they promised me in their promotional materials. It’s also not what I want from a company who is managing my very personal access to health care.

Imagine yourself going to a doctor’s office for the first time. You know the routine, they hand you a clipboard with a bunch of forms to fill out and make you wait a good 20 minutes after your appointment start time. Now imagine that you dutifully fill out their stack of forms, walk back up to the receptionist, hand them over, step back and wait only to have this person turn and say “This is incomplete.” When it comes to good customer service, this kind of response is a big no-no. People don’t communicate like that… at least not the nice ones. Why should interacting with software be any different?

A subtle change in language can drastically change your tone and how your customer or visitor perceives you and your company. Something as simple as, “We’re sorry, but we cannot process your registration yet. It appears that the username you requested is already in use by someone.” would have made a world of difference. I may still be annoyed that I have to choose a different username, but like they say it’s easier to swallow sugar than vinegar.

The difference here? In my example, the tool acknowledges and takes responsibility. In the former, you were responsible.

Of course, the entire interaction could be dramatically improved, but small changes like this can have big impact without breaking the bank. When was the last time you thought about the tone of your application errors and messages?

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