Designing for transparency: The Futon Company

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In design, an important concept is transparency. And indeed nowadays, there is a lot of lip service given to transparency in politics and the rest of society.

But what does transparency actually mean? And, how can we provide transparency in practical terms without a big fuss? I am hoping that the following example might help:

Yesterday afternoon I went shopping on the Futon Company website for a bedside table and a bookcase.

It offered me home delivery or store collection:

I loved the jolly icons and clicked on store collection to consider my options.

My nearest Futon Company store with the stock I wanted was 5.8 miles away, which theoretically is not that far, but with London traffic and it being close to 3pm it would take an hour or two to drive there and back. I clicked through to the actual page of that nearest store and read that there was strictly no kerbside parking for pickup and the nearest car park was five minutes walk.

This meant that I would have to carry these things to my car myself and try and get them in there, and if I couldn’t get in that nearest car park, then I might have to pay parking fees. And, if I took a wrong turn off either on the way there or back, which is much easier than one might think, I could add on a congestion charge. Oh and finally the other option the website mentioned was that I could drive round the back of the store after ringing them on route, so that they could come out and give me my delivery. However if I took longer than the strictly ten minutes waiting time allowed, I would risk receiving a hefty parking fine.

All of this information was enough for me to decide that home delivery was definitely the best alternative for me, so I clicked on that and got:

The first option blew my mind. What? I could get furniture delivered to my house in the middle of the afternoon within three hours of my clicking a button on a website? It seemed to good to be true, though for that price part of me did want them to build it too. The alternative however, was not very attractive at all: Three to five days? Why would it take so long especially if it was despatched the next day. Would it be driving about London in a van for three to five days?

10-1 Smashing Furniture

The Futon Company website has Trustpilot on its website so I clicked through for more information and it came up with A LOT of one star reviews saying:

My furniture arrived broken and I cannot get the Futon Company to sort this out.

Then, I remembered that my husband once ordered a futon and a side table and the side table was smashed when it arrived and it took him a lot of effort to get it returned and replaced but we’d forgotten because once the furniture is up and installed it is very lovely (smashing). But my subconscious remembered, which was why I was thinking store pick up to begin with, even though I have a tiny Fiat 500 and I would have had to drive about with the roof down.

Finally, I decided it was worth the extra £35 to get the £47.79 three-hour delivery service in order to not have smashed furniture as it seemed to be a Deliveroo-style personal one-order-at-a-time-service that to me meant a reduced risk of breakages. Also, I was seduced by this instantaneous gratification delivery approach of everything I wanted within the next three hours (well apart from some of their nice looking fluffy socks which were store-collection only). I could have the bedside table and bookcase up before bedtime. How amazing would that be?

It was too good to be true!

I checked the time my nearest store closed: 6pm, refreshed my page in case I was hallucinating (I have quite a bad cough cold, sweaty, queasiness unglamorous thing going on which is why I was home shopping online to begin with) and placed my order at 2.58pm. I remember thinking: Ah yes, that’s fine, they still have a full three hours to get it to me before the store closes – and confidently coughed up the hefty £47.79 delivery charge like a Big Time Charlie (or Billy Big Balls if you are from up North).

I got the confirmation email from the Futon Company saying Gophr the courier would contact me nearer the time and then I waited.

(Well not really as a woman on the triple shift I shagged on doing a bit of work, a load of stuff around the house and checked on my ill teenagers who with the same bug as me were too sick to go to school.)

An hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything, but I thought I was just being a bit anxious because, like many of us, I’ve been let down in the past. Virgin Media, hands down, wins the prize for being the absolute worst customer service ever. But, hope over experience prevailed though as I kept thinking: No, the Futon Company have promised me, it will happen.

10-2 Roger that

At 4.58pm, still nothing!

So, I rang up the contact telephone number and a very nice man called Roger whom I thought was in a Futon Company call centre answered. He asked me for some details, looked up my order on the system and said: It says a request to deliver tomorrow before 12.30. I told him that I had paid for the three-hour delivery and I was expecting it in the next hour and a half. He said he would look into it and call me back.

At 5.30pm I was getting a bit antsy as it was getting close to 6pm and store closing time, so I rang the ‘call centre’ number again and got someone else whose name I didn’t catch, who repeated what Roger had said and I would get my goods tomorrow. Once again I said that I had paid for a three-hour delivery and that I was expecting a delivery today. To which the reply came: Well the warehouse shut at 5pm.

Warehouse? I thought my stuff was coming from a store. No, I was told, the system said it was coming from the warehouse which was shut so no deliveries until tomorrow.

I expressed my disappointment and the person said they could get me a partial refund on the delivery fee and I said that I thought I should get a full refund because the Futon Company had just lied to me. This person was very nice but thought I was saying cancel the order so we went back and forth a few times and I said since we were ascertaining exactly what I would like, I said that I would like a full refund of the delivery fee and the order as well (because we all know shy bairns get nay taffies), but this person quite reasonably said that my request was highly unlikely to be honoured but they would put in a full delivery fee refund request.

I agreed and resigned myself to waiting until the next day.

At 6.13pm, Roger rang up and I basically had the same conversation I had had with his colleague. There was nothing new registered on the system (which was starting to look a bit pants #imho) so Roger didn’t know that I had rung up someone else since the last time we had spoken and that his colleague had requested an full refund of the delivery charge.

Roger did, however, ask me to send him an email detailing everything that had happened and what had gone wrong as he wanted to know if it was a warehouse problem or a courier problem. I groaned. And, it was at this point, I began to get an insight into how the company works. I was getting a bit of transparency if you will…

Now when I worked as a system analyst, getting to know your user and all the systems in the workplace was called knowledge requirements. When I worked in the field of AI, it was known as knowledge elicitation. In user experience and web design, it is user requirements.

Whatever you call it it is about getting to know all of the socio-technological aspects of someone’s shopping/working day – so far in this blog you have gotten mine. However, I didn’t know how it worked behind the scenes. Though, getting the information behind the scenes is absolutely essential. Knowing how much of it you need to give to the user without overloading them or giving them not enough information to do the task they came to do, like me is a fine balance, and the only way to create transparency and trust.

At this point in time, the Futon company had already destroyed my trust by their lack of transparency and by failing to deliver. I wanted my furniture.

10-3 Transparency

Roger said that since my postcode was nearer to a warehouse than an actual shop, I was getting my delivery from a warehouse not the shop which shut at 5pm as sometimes deliveries are dispatched from shops, and of course since I ordered my delivery at 2.58pm, it went automatically to the next day. It really isn’t though, according to Google Maps the warehouse is 10.3 miles away. It would be quicker and cheaper though than driving through central London, especially if the courier has to pay ULEZ charges (the lower emissions taxes). Did I need to know this information? Not really. And, is it strictly true? I’m not sure, as we will find out in a minute.

As, Roger gave me his email address, I found out another piece of information: There isn’t a call centre, the contact number directs through to a shop, so the first time, I got Roger’s shop in Exeter, and then the second time, I got another shop somewhere else. So, I asked Roger why he was still doing business at 6.13pm if his shop was shut (I was now in full knowledge elicitation mode) and he said he was ‘pottering around’. I asked him if he was having a lie down on the futons or something, but reality is way more boring and he was cashing up for the day and all of that. After eliciting a bit more information on his working day in case it would be useful, we said goodbye and I wrote Roger an email detailing the disappointing scenario, with a suggestion that since I wasn’t going to get free furniture: Could I have 10% off the overall cost or perhaps even a free pair of those fluffy socks as a gesture of goodwill? Tomorrow I would have to stay in all morning after reorganising my day etc., which is quite the opposite of a three hour delivery slot that afternoon.

At 9.15am the following morning I got a text from Gophr saying that my Futon Company order was on its way.

It arrived 1017am.

I told the driver that I had been expecting it the previous day, and did he know anything about that? He did not. So I thanked him and as I carried it indoors I noticed the delivery note taped on the front:

So I gave my driver a big thumbs up feedback on the Gophr website, took a picture of the above and sent it to Roger. Then I got to putting together my furniture, though at first I was so cheesed off by my experiences, I couldn’t enjoy myself. A few minutes in, I had already forgotten about the whole disappointing experience as the Futon Company furniture is beautiful.

10-4 What speculation is this?

I had just about put together the bookcase when Roger rang up and asked if I had placed my order in the basket before 2pm but then checked it out at 2.58pm which allowed the order to go ahead. I asked him why he was asking and he said that he had been talking to the IT team who were trying to imagine how the system had allowed me to order something after 2pm as that is the cut off time for the three hour delivery everyday and that option shouldn’t have been shown. See, I didn’t need to know where my furniture was coming from I just needed to know the cut off point for the three-hour delivery option: 2pm.

I rolled my eyes and said: Oh that’s bad. They have made my delivery options, conditional. Roger said that he didn’t know what I was talking about and I said not to worry. We then got into my refund again, and he said that he would keep me posted as the system was still not updating him as to my current refund status. I thanked him and said that I loved my new furniture but I was still very upset with the Futon Company etc., etc.,

At 2.20pm I repeated the order I had done the previous day and it gave me the three hour delivery option again, even the cut off time had passed 20 minutes earlier, at 2pm. So! I took a look at the source code on Futon Company website (mouse right-click View Source Code or Ctrl U). Their code is full of zip code this and state that leading me to believe that their website was written by an American company and if it actually runs on an American server, or calls on American timekeeping, then the clocks went back in the USA last week, so they are an hour ahead of us, which means that 2.20pm in the UK will be1.20pm UK time on the Futon Company website.

This will give me the option of three-hour delivery past the cut off point of 2pm, because the code is event driven as most website code is. I want home delivery, so that event calls up my options depending on before it is 2pm or past 2pm. However, it hasn’t taken into account that daily savings time-adjustments across the world do not all happen at the same time they do in the USA!

Event driven code with conditions looks something like this:

get time
 before 2pm  
   display three hour delivery 
   display next day delivery

Which will only work if you are calling the right time for the time zone your user is in.

10-5 Roger in the stock room

Later that afternoon, I got an email from the Futon Company, saying that I had been given a full refund and so I emailed Roger to let him know and to thank him for going above and beyond in his endeavours to help me.

At 6pm, Roger rang me and told me I had a full refund. I thanked him and said that I did indeed know that as I had already received an email to that effect and had sent him an email to let him know. He said he had been in the stock room and hadn’t seen the email, which made me laugh as I was wondering if he had gotten stuck in there, but also I was glad for him. Have you seen the staff at Waitrose? They all have to wear headsets and carry mobile phones and are constantly responding to requests in their ears all day long like the Agent Smiths in the Matrix, and the Waitrose I frequent is about the size of a small newsagents. It is so unnecessary and has to increase their stress levels and cannot be good for their mental health to be on constant standby all day long with people shouting in their ears. I am so glad that Roger gets locked in the stock room away from the Matrix.

Much later, after the shop had closed, Roger sent me an email, thanking me for mine and saying that he was going for a nap which made me laugh out loud because it was definitely untrue, as he works hard and the Futon Company should give him a raise. This reminded me to repeat my order again to see what happened. I got this box:

Which confirmed all my suspicions. The delivery options gets updated depending on the time of day which is inaccurate probably because the code is calling on a package or a server to read the time from a USA perspective.

Designing this way to respond to events is known as responsive design and it is not the best way to design, as we have already seen it will often come a cropper because it is impossible to imagine let alone design for every scenario. In the same way that it is not possible to design for every device on which your website will be seen as there are hundreds of thousands of them.

10-6: Responding to responsive design

Someone coding it up will always miss out a condition, as it is not easy to model all states, at which point you have to give the information back to the user and let them decide. This is known in psychological terms as giving them an internal locus of control that is to say, making them feel that they are in control of their decision-making because you have given them enough facts. This is a rule taken from Ben Shneidermans’ Eight Golden Rules of Interaction Design. This is quite different to the experience I had. I wasn’t in control of anything and the choices I was given were inaccurate nor did I have all of the information I needed.

The way I would fix this is:

Once the user has picked on my home delivery they should have only two choices regardless of the time of day:

  • Speedy – within three hours if ordered before 2pm. After 2pm next day between 9.30-12-30pm.
  • Standard Delivery (3 -5 days)

See what I have done here? There is no need for javascript to be serve up a different option depending on whether it is before or after 2pm. Consequently, there is no way for it to go wrong due to differing international daylight savings clock changes.

What I have done above is a core content approach where I give the user the core information they need in one line.

With this one line the user has all the right information they need to make an appropriate decision for their delivery needs and prices. They don’t need to know what time the warehouse closes or if their delivery is coming from a shop or a warehouse, and they definitely don’t need to put things in and out of their basket or look at the source code to figure out how the website doesn’t quite work. It is all in the their hands, so if they order after 2pm then the responsibility will lie with theim.

The Futon Company IT team have quite the imagination to even think that items lingering in the basket make the system ‘think’ that it counts that as the order time. It said quite clearly on the paper form which was taped on my boxes 14.57 even though I had put the order in at my end 14.58 – so even then we don’t synchronise exactly on time.

However the worrying thing is the IT teams speculation – assigning intelligence where there is none reminds me of the way we are all thinking about AI nowadays but that’s quite another blog.

10-7 Roger roger

On a roll, I then put some more things in and out of my basket to discover that big furniture cannot be delivered via Gophr you have to wait three to five day as you can see here below:

See how it says in the middle of the bottom of the grey panel: You will be able to choose delivery type at checkout.

Guess what:

You cannot choose your delivery at all. Again another bit of software not quite working. The Futon Company website company could do with a bit of usability testing, but that is for someone else to sort out.

However, I will be emailing Roger again today to tell him the solution to the problem which caused all my problems yesterday so he can pass it on to the IT Team. Let’s hope he will thank me by popping me a nice pair of those fluffy socks in the post which will come through the letterbox so I won’t have to wait in.

Or… I could treat myself to a pair next time I take the tube into town with the £47.79 I saved myself. Up the Boro!

10- 10 Roger over and out.

In the meantime, I will be adding this example of how to design for transparency to my online course on  human-computer interaction over on Udemy so that it’s not just me who gets something good out of this situation.

I love it when I get an nice example to demonstrate good design as I’ve said before:

The definition of excellence is doing the basics really, really well.

Me: Ruth Stalker-Firth


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