Last September we learned of the massive security breach of Equifax that affected more than 145 million people.  Although this incident may feel like last year’s news, a poll conducted by a month after the breach was announced found that

  • Only about 1-in-4 Americans (26%) checked their credit reports or credit scores within two weeks of the breach announcement.
  • 53% of those polled had heard about the breach but didn’t check their credit reports or scores.
  • Roughly half of millennials between 18 and 26 years old were unaware the breach had happened.

Maybe you are one of those who knew about the breach and did something to protect your information by freezing your account.  I was one of those.

Maybe you had a good user experience.  I did not.

My plan was to go from Equifax to Experian, and then on to TransUnion to get the freeze in place for all three at once.  Here’s what happened and the usability lesson that can be found in my experience.

Fill out a simple form

At the Equifax website, the online form looked simple enough, so I jumped right in.  No problem entering my name, date of birth, and social security number, but I hit a brick wall when I tried to enter my current address. In my first attempt, I used the auto-fill option for my address.  Error message.  Then I tried it with all capital letters. Error Message.  All lower case letters. Error message.  Each time, the system informed me that my address was not valid.

sample form

I couldn’t think of a solution to get past the address “error,” so I moved on to Experian. What a difference in user experience!  When I got to the address entry, Experian offered suggestions on how to enter my address, which included the tip that the system does not accept commas.

Blame the stupid user

When developers watch their first usability test, it is a common occurrence for them to blame the “stupid user” when they see a user error. They tend to hold to this belief that the user is at fault until they see the error repeated by subsequent users.

In my case, I was the “stupid user.”  Only after I had been guided by the Experian website into how the system accepts addresses did I realize that the problem I experienced at the Equifax site was the comma I put into my street address, separating the street name from the directional information, as in Bucket Avenue, SE.

What makes me a stupid user is that I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong in entering my address, because that’s the way I always do it.  My mental model did not match the website requirements, and nothing guided me to the fix for the problem.

Think of the cost of the stupid user mistake!

How many other thousands of people had a similar problem in completing the Equifax online form?  I can’t say. But here’s what I do know.  The costs must have been high for Equifax, both in a bad experience for users and in a very likely spike in calls to Equifax for help or a dropoff in customer’s completion rate of the form.  Any of these scenarios is a bad result for Eqifax.

Equifax must have figured out they needed to do something, as I found out when I went back to the form to write this blog. Hoping to get a screen capture of the exact language of the error message in the form, I made an interesting discovery. The website now takes the street address with the comma!

Just for fun, I continued the process of completing the form to see if there were any other problems Equifax might be waiting for users to uncover.  Sure enough, at the zip code field, I entered my zip + 4 zip code and the system did not accept it.  The feedback was “please enter your zip code.”  Nothing else.  When I changed it to the 5-digit zip code, the system accepted it.

form result

User experience lesson for Equifax and everyone else

No one wants a usability score of zero.

Don’t let your users teach you what’s wrong with your interface so that you can fix it after users have a bad experience.  Do a small usability study before you launch your product, watch and learn from your users, and build usability into the experience.

Carol Barnum

Carol brings her academic background and years of teaching and research to her work with clients to deliver the best research approaches that have proven to produce practical solutions. Carol’s many publications (6 books and more than 50 articles) have made a substantial contribution to the body of knowledge in the UX field. The 2nd edition of her award-winning handbook Usability Testing Essentials is now available.