Wall of Shame Rant: EBay

Some of you may remember Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture as an inspirational and courageous last lecture in the face of a terminal disease. I remember him as one of my professors at University of Virginia. It was the best course I ever had – CS 305 I think – called Usability something or other.

Our first assignment was to find “unusable doors”. No kidding, that was it: scour the campus, sit outside a door, and count failure rates (pushing instead of pulling, pushing the wrong side, etc.). What an eye-opening experience! We learned to observe using the things engineers like us created and quantify failure rates. We were shocked at the high failure rates in something as ridiculously simple as A DOOR. After all, Pausch said, “doors have been around for 5,000 years, and today’s engineers have yet to master them”.

[Side note: while we quantified door failure rates and submitted our reports, Randy went with a little more “soft” approach to grading, quantifying reports as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. My report – creatively mentioning “the flames of Satan being visible in the door’s reflection” – earned “The Ugly” distinction.]

In addition to quantifying failure rates, we learned to experiment with design before, during, and after implementing them. In the intervening years, I’ve decided to write a book on the topic. It is going to be a masterpiece called “The Ultimate Solution to Usability in Everyday Tools, Software, and Life“. But I’ve never gotten past one page. One sentence, in fact. The entire content of my book is going to be a single page, with a single sentence, with three words:


Recently I was trying to sell some gear on EBay. I had to verify my identity by calling a phone number. Ridiculous form of identity validation, but fine – at least they can KIND OF trace a seller to a phone number – so I played along.

So I called. And for 14 excruciating minutes I was greeted with this:


Yes, those aren’t artifacts of the recording – that was a full-on ear rape for 14 minutes of carnival music fading in and out.

Which brings me to my point: EBay has inexcusably failed the litmus test for usability: quantify your results and use it once. If any one of those support representatives had called their own support line, they would have realized that ear-raping the very clients they depend on is not a very good business practice. And making them wait on hold for 14 minutes to use their service doesn’t really cut it in this “need-it-now” world…

So, I implore any and all of you portal system admins: it’s all too easy to focus on a specific aspect of a system like keeping thing running (I find myself in this position more often than I’m comfortable with – not knowing how the system is used but just “keeping it running”). But, if we do something as simple as using it once, we may learn a thing or two about why our end users are so salty when they finally pick up the phone and call to complain.

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