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User Experience Yeah, we've got problems

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Trying to look up a product from Staples online, I received an error message telling me that I can’t use their site unless I enable cookies in my browser: (emphasis added)

ATTENTION: Your web browser is not currently configured to accept “cookies.”

Cookies are small files that are stored on your PC and that identify you to our site. In order to shop or register on, you must be able to accept cookies. Using cookies enables us to make your shopping experience more efficient and pleasant through personalization.

Ouch. I need to take the time to reconfigure my browser so they can make things more efficient and pleasant for me?

Here’s some advice on writing effective error messages and defining sensible software requirements.

Broken Requirements

Mind you, I wasn’t doing anything that requires them to remember me. All I did is enter a term in their search box. It’s obviously possible to show me matching products without requiring me to accept a cookie.

This appears to be a case of a poorly thought-out site design. Because you need the user to accept cookies in order for them to add items to your cart, you might as well put that requirement right up front, right?

The problem is, Staples didn’t think of all the reasons someone might be using their site. Just because I’m searching for products doesn’t mean I intend to buy them immediately. I might be doing product research by evaluating what my options are before I make a purchase. Shopping is a process and not every search will lead to an immediate purchase.

Staples has several shopping channels available. They have stores that I can walk into, a catalog I can browse, a phone number I can call, and a Web site I can visit. It doesn’t occur to them that I might want to use more than one of these channels to make a purchase. I might want to look up pricing and availabilty on the Web site but drive over to the store to complete the sale. By erecting barriers in front of one of their channels, they have effectively eliminated it.

Could you imagine if you were only allowed to call a company’s toll-free number if planned on making a purchase? What if the phone checked to see that you had your wallet with you before an operator would answer the line? That’s silly, but it’s effectively what Staples is doing on their Web site. Don’t have the minimum requirements to place an order? Then we won’t even let you know what products we have.

Staples should allow you to search and view products without requiring the use of cookies. Enhancing the user experience through personalization is a great goal, but not at the expense of a poor or non-existant experience if personalization isn’t available. If the user has cookies enabled, use them and provide a personalized shopping session. If they don’t, give them a stripped down store that allows them to accomplish their tasks.

Writing Effective Error Messages

To make matters worse, there’s nothing about my browser that prevents it from accepting cookies. I use The Proxomitron filtering proxy to strip certain personal information out of cookies to protect my privacy and security. If someone wants to store my email address, name, or credit card numbers in a cookie, my filters will kill the cookie before it ever gets written. But the proxy and my browser will let most cookies pass through.

That means there’s an apparently bug in Staples’ cookie checking mechanism. Whatever system they are using to determine if I can accept cookies is flawed in some way.

But that’s not what the error message says. The message, probably written by a software engineer, assumes that everything on their end is fine and blames the failure on me.

Software shouldn’t blame the user for the problem. Doing so only serves to frustrate and demoralize the user. Even if the fault lies with the user, you should provide gentle hints about the right way to do things without implying that they did something wrong.

Staples tries to provide assistance in enabling cookies, but falls well short of their goal. After the error message is a link that says “For instructions on enabling cookies for several popular browsers, click here.

The link directs the user to a section of their FAQ that explains what cookies are and why you need them to use the Staples site. The FAQ provides instructions for enabling cookies in what Staples apparently considers popular browsers: Internet Explorer 3 and 4 and Netscape 3 and 4, all on Windows.

I’m not privy to their site statistics, but unless they have some rather unique traffic patterns, those browsers aren’t commonly used on their site. The 3.0 versions of IE and Netscape were released in August 1996, and the 4.0 versions were first released in the summer and fall of 1997. According the, the 4.x versions of each browser accounted for just 1% of Internet traffic in January 2003, and the 3.x versions didn’t generate enough traffic to even register.

Internet Explorer 5 was released in March of 1999. What this tells me is that the Staples cookie FAQ has been ignored by their content management team for the last four years.

The instructions Staples provides for managing your cookies are given for Windows browsers only, although that fact isn’t mentioned in the FAQ. The information is presented as if it were the only way of doing things and users of other platforms such as Macintosh and Linux might be confused by these instructions.

The lesson here is that if your error messages give the user help in troubleshooting the problem, make sure that the troubleshooting guide is up to date. If the guide isn’t comprehensive or only provides instructions for a particular platform or version of your software, be sure to explain that.


February 16, 2003 7:38 PM

bravo! a comprehensive evaluation of a corporations inadequacies to generate sales and further alienate potential customers.

Trackback from niknud: there was one?
February 17, 2003 12:31 PM

new duds

Excerpt: what a night... snowing like hell out there, really brutal - 10 degrees f, nne wind at 10 and a

Trackback from The useful arts, seattle.
February 18, 2003 1:34 PM Yeah, we've got problems

Excerpt: Yeah, we've got problems :: Kalsey Consulting Group Good comments on writing usable error messages. ATTENTION: Your web browser

Trackback from In My Experience
February 25, 2003 1:47 PM

Write Well.

Excerpt: Kalsey and Kaufman make the same point today about bad copy writing and what it does to the user (not good things). I learned this lesson two years ago when I took an info architecture...

September 24, 2003 1:10 AM

Two things come to mind: their cookie help may have been lifted from some other site and they never read it, figuring that they could at least say they had the info. they may try to do the cookie thing on site entry because they had problems with backovers when using session id's backovers are mentioned at: ++++

Chris Rhodes
April 12, 2008 3:22 PM

Staples sucks. I bought a Canon printer from them and it developed problems within a few months. They would not exchange it for another or give me store credit. They said I was on my own and should contact Canon. BTW, I bought an envision LCD monitor around the same time from Best Buy and it died recently. Best Buy took it back and gave full credit without a problem. Lesson learned--Staples Sucks.

Ex Retail Worker
May 12, 2008 9:05 PM

"Staples sucks. I bought a Canon printer from them and it developed problems within a few months. They would not exchange it for another or give me store credit. They said I was on my own and should contact Canon. BTW, I bought an envision LCD monitor around the same time from Best Buy and it died recently. Best Buy took it back and gave full credit without a problem. Lesson learned—Staples Sucks." Wait what? Are you that stupid? Use to work Retail, not for staples. But a return policy is a return policy, Best Buy, CC and Staples all share a 14 day return policy. They dont produce or make the products they sell, and none of them have an open return policy with Cannon (Usually only Compaq\HP and sometimes gateway). So its Staples fault for not taking back a printer that was "A few months" old? Right....because you know if that was the case i'd buy a new monitor every "few months" and return it for a new one. Staples totally has to warranty Cannon products.... Bottom line, want staples to take care of it, like any retailer, pick up an extended protection plan.

Bill McGee
November 27, 2008 8:16 AM

Bull-hocky! Of course no big retailer can warranty every product from every manufacturer for ever and ever, but if you don't treat your customers right, you don't have customers and soon you don't have a big retail business any more. A firm with a multi-million-dollar inventory better fix any purchase that does not match expectations. Seventy bucks is a lot of money to me but Staples wouldn't even notice the cost of an exchange if the printer cartiridges I bought were defective! What percentage of customers are like the guy who said he'd trade in his monitor for a new one every few months if the store did not have a very limited return period? I have the feeling that firms offering an extended warranty are banking on built-in obsolescence or a short shelf-life! Best Buy does not treat its customers that way!

This discussion has been closed.

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