In a consumer assistance column aptly titled "Taking a grab at what's the real system error," the Guardian reports a classic case of IT favoring technology at the expense of usability.
The Guardian explains how some poor banking customer checks his or her account online, repeatedly sees a negative balance, complains, and is eventually forced to endure a lesson in system architecture.
Here's the completely reasonable question the consumer asked the Guardian:
I have a number of savings accounts with Bradford & Bingley which I access online. The total value is around £100,000. But often the on-screen version does not tally with the balance over the phone. Even worse, sometimes one of my accounts shows a negative figure, even though savings accounts cannot go below zero. The call centre says there must be a system error - this appears every month.
The bank initially denies any problem, without even bothering to investigate, until the customer provides a screen capture:
At first B&B said it was impossible to be in the red on a savings account - yours showed minus £1,100. But once you sent in your screen grab, clarity emerged.
Facing clear evidence of failure, the bank spokesperson offers a technical explanation, most likely provided by IT:
You have, among others, an eSavings account where daily "updates" take place between the "core" system and the "internet platform". To ensure the systems are fully aligned, B&B runs numerous "exchanges" of information.
So there can be times when the "processed balance" does not coincide with your available balance. Had you looked even a few minutes later, the minus figure would have gone. You have not lost by this.
Finally, in a gesture cynical observers might say is calculated solely to appease the Guardian, the bank offers cash:
B&B says it has not encountered this elsewhere and will have its systems people work on your account. It will apologise and send £50 as a goodwill gesture.
THE PROJECT FAILURES ANALYSIS
There are two problems here: lousy customer service and poor usability. The customer service issue is obvious: blaming the user for a bank problem. The usability problem is more subtle.
Synchronization issues apparently result in users sometimes seeing partially calculated data. From a system perspective, the apparent "error" isn't cause for concern because actual bank balances are unaffected. However, users don't realize the error is only a temporary presentation artifact.
Practical responses. Of course, the best solution is change the system architecture or processing sequence to ensure users never see incorrect data. If that's not workable at least display a message indicating data may temporarily be wrong.
While taking the site down during updates is also an option, that approach may alienate users. Still, responding to a blog post about problems with Citizens Bank online, one commenter seemed willing to accept downtime:
I have been a customer for 5 years and this site regularly goes down overnight for maintenance....
Another commenter, whom I suspect is more typical, responded negatively:
This is one of the reasons I don't do my banking on-line. Yes, I do incur a 43 cent per bill cost for mail, but the level of reliability in the U.S. Postal Service is still way higher than the reliability of the Internet.
My reponse also took the end-user perspective:
If the site "regularly" goes down, as you said, there is a real problem with this bank's infrastructure. Individuals and business customers both expect reliability and availability for important functions such as banking.
My take. Technologists facing project constraints such as limited budgets and the need to integrate legacy systems often forget to fully address usability and the end-user perspective. However, the best system designers address constraints while achieving reasonable levels of usability. In my opinion, anything less is failure.
And what about the bank? I think their statement about having "not encountered this elsewhere" is disingenuous.