Paying the Bills: Sweating the Details in User Interaction

By: jerry | 05/31/2008

Every month as I pay bills online I am plagued by a number of very small but crucial details that cause me to stumble. This article isn't about calling out the designers and developers who built the online billpay tools I use. I understand the process these developers go through and the circumstances under which they labor. I have nothing but admiration for them. I am interested, rather, in educating you, the business stakeholder.

Usability testing is not a dirty word. Providing adequate time and resources to do build elegant and usable web applications is not the place to trim costs if customer satisfaction, error reduction and customer retention are your goals. And most of all, you are not a designer or usability expert. Please hire the right people, give them the resources to do their job and stay out of their way.

Of course, if one of these issues is the result of a design decision -- please pick up a copy of Luke Wroblewski's book, "Web Form Design:Filling in the Blanks" and "Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability" by Steve Krug.

Before I jump into the nits, a quick overview of paying bills the 2008 way. Or at least my way. My process begins with a spreadsheet in Google Docs. I used to use Excel, but Google Docs does everything I need and let's me use whichever computer I happen to be in front of at the moment. It also means crucial data is automatically saved "in the cloud" instead of on a machine that may fail or get stolen. And yes, I do backup the Google Docs file to my machine. I'm not that trusting. My Google Docs spreadsheet contains a list of all of my recurring bills with the amount I've paid each months. Pretty basic. The value of this system is that I don't miss any bills — they're all in the list; plus I can see what I've been paying over the last year which helps me catch any bills that change dramatically.

My next step is to open a folder of tabs in Firefox. I have one folder of tabs on my bookmark bar devoted to bills and I can open these all at once by choosing "Open all in tabs" at the bottom of the menu. With all of my tabs open and my spreadsheet ready and start by visiting my online bank site to mark off those bills that are auto paid — crucial bills like the car payment and mortgage. Generally I avoid auto pay; I like to have a little more control than that.

On to nit #1. Logging in. Websites the world over allow you to save your username and password via cookie, or at the very least don't actively block the password manager built into most browsers. Regions Bank does. I believe this is a misguided attempt at "increasing security." Personally, I'd like to have a little more control. At least the option of using my browsers built-in password manager — like every other site I know. Also, while we're talking about logging in. Try testing your site's functionality in a mobile environment like an iPhone. Region's login fields have default text in them which in a desktop browser is automatically removed via Javascript when you click in the field. Not so on the iPhone. There I have to click in the field. Navigate my cursor to the end of the field and then backspace to delete the phrase "Enter Login ID". Not cool.

Regions Bank Login Screen

Nit #2. Not having online billpay. I'm looking at you CitiFinancial. How can you be part of the world's largest financial institution and not offer a way to pay bills online. Now you know why I no longer have an account with you.

Nit #3. Antiquated bill pay system. This problem seems particularly endemic to public utilities. AmerenUE and Laclede Gas use MyCheckFree, which is an adequate system most of the time. Metro Sewer has an out-dated system that is difficult to navigate and makes it virtually impossible to tell if you've paid your bill or not. Heaven forbid if you pay your bill in person or by mail one month. The system has no idea. Missouri American Water is the worst offender in this category, however. Their system is only a step better then paying by mail. There is no history and the system has no knowledge of your past or current bills. You must have your bill in front of you to enter your acount number and to enter the amount you owe. You must also have your checkbook in front of you to enter a check number, bank id and account number. At least they have a system!

Best Buy "Make a Payment" link

Nit #4. This is really two nits in one. Links should do what they say. If the link at the bottom of your page says "Make a payment," it should not take me to a page that offers me the opportunity to sign-up for a card. The very card I'm tyring to pay. Furthermore, once I click on the link, please don't open a popup window. I don't care that you use a third-party company to process the payments. Your branding is all over the new page. I am not mystified and I am certainly not going to close this window and then decide my experience was so wonderful paying my bill that I will buy a few more things. If I do, I'm perfectly capable of getting back to your website. And while we're on the topic, opening yet another window after declining to make a "Rush Payment" is just egregious. Figure out a way to handle rush payments with the same system.

Best Buy "Make a Payment" landing page

Nit #5. Unnecssary, non-standard information inputs. SallieMae hits the trifecta if you need to pay on a student loan. First, notice the checkbox at the beginning of the line. SallieMae helpfully allows you to choose which of your loans you're going to pay. Unfortunately, if you only have one, you still have to check this vestigal, un-identified box. Second, notice the payment amount conveniently divided into dollars and cents. Guaranteed to cause an error since every other site allows you to input the entire amount in one field. Couldn't we also have a button to automatically choose the "Pay this amount" amount? Third. Notice the date selector. Fortunately for me, I always check the "Pay Today" button. Of course, if you don't check either which is not that difficult to do, you'll be experiencing a lovely assortment of error messages. Thanks for paying.

Sallie May Payment Input Fields

Had I written this article a few months ago as I had intended, I might have had a lot more to say. Over the last few months I have noticed an improvement in the payment systems for a number of companies. AT&T most notably. I have also noticed a significant increase in annoying "security" measures like the constant barrage of little Site ID pictures and personal questions like my first girlfriend or the name of my favorite band. Some of these questions are useless (anyone can find out where I was born or what my mother's maiden name is). Other's are impossible. I'm a designer, my favorite color changes with the seasons!

All in all, for me, this system is a whole lot better then the old fashioned way. I an almost hear the voice of the computer in Wargames, "Want to pay a bill?"

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