2 ways to fix frustrating dialogue box

By Eric Brindeau,

Computer systems shouldn’t make us feel bad. But they often do, writes Susan Farrell of the Nielsen Norman Group.

When my bank, ABSA (member of the Barclays Group), e-mailed me my first encrypted PDF bank statement back in 2011, the pop-up dialogue box made me feel bad. In fact stupid.

If you review the file access dialogue box quickly, it asks you to insert your ID number and click Open. The interface already has the first four numbers of my ID, so I only need to type in the rest. Or so I thought.

Open secure PDF dialogue box, 2011
Open Encrypted Document, August 2011

If you read the dialogue box requirements carefully, you have to enter your entire thirteen digit ID number, ignoring the numbers they have already provided.

Why this dialogue box fails

  • We don’t read instructions
    • We know from usability research that we don’t read instructions; we try to figure out how things work ourselves.
  • Our inelegance is underestimated
    • Nowadays we expect clever technology: Linux tells me the Caps Lock is on when trying to enter a password, Thunderbird reminds me about the e-mail attachment I forgot, my iPhone opens up at the last music track I was listening to, I hail an Uber outside the airport terminal using the app without having to think the driver knows where to pick me up. So I’m not surprised to receive a personalised file to unlock, identified by the first few letters of my ID number. (Good credibility.) But I am annoyed that I then have to re-type the information the interface has already provided.

2 ways to fix it

For this dialogue box the personalisation is the main usability issue. Adding the option of a passport number causes further confusion*. For good usability, my suggestions would be:

  1. Use the personalisation to its capability:
  2. Change the focus of the personalisation by identifying me in say the title – Open Eric Brindeau’s Statement – and simply ask for what’s needed:

*The bank should know if I access its accounts with an ID or Passport number, so it should only ask for the details it needs.

The bank’s solution?

Perhaps this usability problem was uncovered by the bank, but instead of making the dialogue box even simpler to use, the designers have insisted that users continue to read the requirements carefully.

Open secure PDF dialogue box, 2016
Open Encrypted Document, June 2016

Because the numbers of your ID/Passport identified are the last four digits, more cognitive effort is required to fill in the numbers up to the last four digits and therefore one might be less confident to simply fill out the rest of the number and make a mistake.

Usability issues could easily be avoided by rephrasing the requirements, allowing banking clients access their statements without mistakes or frustration.