Acceptable aggrevation?


I tried to pay my credit card bill on the American Express web site yesterday, and put in 350 for the amount I wanted to pay. Back came this error message:

American Express error message

Yeah, they wouldn’t accept my payment because I’d entered 350 instead of 350.00.

Now, I don’t like to be a big conspiracy theorist nor say that a cabal of cruel credit card cads is looking for ways to drive us all up the wall. (Okay, it does actually feel good to say that. But I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, even credit card companies.) I can’t help but wonder, though, how many times a day this error happens on the American Express web site. Hundreds? Thousands? I know that I personally hit it basically every time I pay my bill. Is it really possible that they just have no idea how aggrevating their site is? Note, by the way, that they’re more than happy to ignore a comma in a bill payment — 1,234.56 is just as acceptable as 1234.56. Are they willing to make things easy when you’re paying thousands of dollars, but not when you’re paying cents? (I love the example text that suggests paying 345,678.00. Thanks, next time I have a third of a milllion dollars in Amex debt, I’ll remember that!)

I won’t speculate about why they allow this aggrevation to happen every day, and whether it is intentional or not. I’ll just say that credit card companies in general make a very significant portion of their revenue — up to one-third — from “fee revenue,” which is the money you pay them not including interest (things like late fees, overlimit fees, and so on). American Express in particular would make more money from me this month if I’d gotten so aggrevated with their annoying web site yesterday that I walked away, and forgot to come back until after the due date. So I didn’t.

People who study user experience — for instance, our friends at Adaptive Path — can teach companies how to value a great user experience. It’s unfortunate that the math is somewhat inverted, here: American Express has an economic incentive to make their web site usable (since web payment is far cheaper for them than getting checks in the mail), but not too usable. The best situation for them is if you pay your bill through the web, late. Using Adaptive Path’s formulation: “To achieve increased fee revenue, we can make our payment site available but aggrevating by making the customer pat their head and rub their belly at the same time.” Great.

I think, next month, I’ll send American Express a check, on time. Hey, Amex, fix your site! I’d love to pay you more easily.

(Matt Haughey has another great example of how annoying the American Express site is, from last year. Update: my friend Nelson has yet another good example from a few years ago, as well.)

6 Responses to “Acceptable aggrevation?”

  1. Nelson Says:

    The American Express website is like a catalog of usability problems. But in this case I think their behaviour is reasonable. “350” could also mean “$3.50”, and the consequences for guessing wrong are high enough that caution seems reasonable.

  2. Marc Hedlund Says:

    I agree that guessing wrong would be a problem, but I doubt $3.50 credit card payments happen very often at all. But, there’s *some* better solution than giving me an error message nearly every time I go to the site. They already give me a confirmation screen that shows the amount I entered — make the confirmation a lot more prominent. Or separate fields for dollars and cents. Or something. But I have a hard time believing this is the best solution.

  3. Matt Haughey Says:

    I should update my amex post. I hate them for all sorts of new reasons these days.

    I pay online completely, no paper bills at all, and I always pay a few days before the due date. I noticed when logging in to pay one month that my card was “locked” (I don’t use it much, so I didn’t notice) because of a supposed late payment. Then I noticed they jacked up my interest rate due to the “late” payment. I rechecked the previous payment and it was 5 days before the due date.

    I’m going to pay it off and cancel it once and for all. American Express is a lame credit company, like all the rest.

  4. Brad Greenlee Says:

    I really doubt that their usability problems are intentional; just poor design. There aren’t all that many companies that get it right, particularly among banks and credit card companies for some reason. Maybe there’s just so much bureaucracy involved in making the smallest change that stuff like that never gets fixed.

    Why don’t you pay your AMEX bill (as well as all your other bills) through your bank’s site? It’s a lot easier than logging on to ten different sites, and having them centralized makes it less likely that you’ll forget to pay something.

  5. Marc Hedlund Says:

    I agree that they are almost certainly not intentionally created problems — just that fixing them doesn’t seem to be a high priority.

  6. Jason Crawford Says:

    I agree that this is annoying. It goes on my long list of things that are needlessly picky about their input format:
    – date fields that only understand “08/06/2006”, not 8/06/2006 or 8/6/06 or 08/06/06 or anything
    – phone number fields that only understand 2065551234, not 206-555-1234 or (206) 555-1234 206.555.1234
    – credit card number fields that only understand 4024123456781234, not 4024 1234 5678 1234

    In the last two cases, all the software has to do is strip out punctuation characters–but that is too much. Better to instruct the user in the proper format!

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