Ben Holliday

An example of ‘good’ UX not being good enough

“To truly create great customer experiences, we need design work that goes deep into business, financial and commercial models, challenges policy, and most of all, is prepared to do the hard work to simplify.”

I wanted to quickly capture some feelings about an experience I had yesterday where I spent a few hours upgrading a mobile phone and contract with I’ve been an EE customer for years, and have regularly used both their website and mobile apps to manage multiple phones and accounts for my family.

I experienced 2 new things yesterday when trying to do this latest upgrade:

  1. felt like it’s been through a significant makeover. The UI and design felt clean and clear, and the site was well signposted in general. There seemed to be plenty of best practice UI/UX design here, and clearly plenty of hard work had gone into building it this way.
  2. The experience of buying a mobile phone contract with EE had changed. There was a new thing called ‘split contracts’ I needed to understand, making this a more complicated process than I expected it to be.

Some quick online research seems to suggest that split contracts are becoming the default for how people buy a new mobile phone and/or contract. I now understand that this means monthly payments are split into two: “one part goes towards paying back the phone and the other part is what you pay for your monthly allowance of data, calls and texts” (thank you to Uswitch for that explanation).

This all turned out to be a confusing experience to navigate. Once I managed to select a suitable data package and phone combination I proceeded to checkout. But I then needed to enter a credit agreement for an interest free loan – that I’d be paying in monthly instalments for the new phone handset. And there was a further process of setting up two separate direct debits to pay for everything monthly (confusingly, I’m also now paying for the phone handset over 3 years, and will be tied to the data package for only 2 years).

The final check out process required me to review no less than 4 (possible 5 from memory) documents of terms and conditions. The final one being the point of signature. I had to check a box for each, confirming I’d read all these documents in full (but really, who does that? And, how many problems must that cause when people don’t fully understand what they’re signing up to).

All of this was what I’d describe as a stressful online shopping experience. I did eventually order the new phone and contract, so job complete (or it will be when the phone arrives sometime later this week).

For the past 24 hours, this has got me thinking about the disconnect that often still exists between the UX of a site or product experience, and the real experience that customers have with a business or brand.

If your customer experience is undermined by the complexity of underlying business models, it simply doesn’t matter how usable or accessible the site navigation is, how great the branding or visual design is, or how well designed and tested your user flows are.

The problem I still see with UX work (products and websites) is that it often doesn’t deal with, or simply isn’t enough to deal with, the business models, policies, or complexity it’s attempting to design an experience for. The number one job of design here has to be to question the underlying complexity and business choices being made.

I’m sure in EE’s case there are commercial reasons for split contracts. Maybe it’s how they offer better prices and remain commercially competitive with their rivals. But I believe it’s the ability to challenge those decisions, and ultimately how this is reflected back to customers that matters – in this case in how a user experience becomes shaped by the need to review multiple legal documents, create multiple direct debits etc.

This is just one example of what it’s like to interact with the digital ‘shop front’ of many modern businesses. It’s why I’ve had high hopes for service design as a profession over UX. A focus on services can help teams ask harder questions about institutional choices. To truly create great customer experiences, we need design work that goes deep into business, financial and commercial models, challenges policy, and most of all, is prepared to do the hard work to simplify.

For whatever the reason, my EE experience pushed complexity onto its customers. Good UX, in this example, doesn’t go far enough.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.