Dear Social Security Administration … I Am Me.
In general, the difference between the good and the great can sometimes be a matter of how effectively you sweat the little things, the things that actually matter to people at the human-level interface. We call this the tactical user-level interface. Sometimes this is the difference between a positive experience and a negative one. This difference matters for any brand.
Today’s brand example is the US government. Specifically the Social Security Administration, a part of the government I have never harbored any animosity toward … until last week.
I am me.
I was asked to retrieve my Social Security benefit amount and retirement age. The Social Security Administration no longer mails out statements. That’s a good thing, since a few hundred million statements equate to a LOT of paper. Instead, they recommend that you obtain this information from their website, ssa.gov, which I proceeded to attempt to do. A banner headline greeted me on a responsive, seemingly newly minted website with words like “just how easy it is to apply online.”
Please understand, I have registered on many (too many) websites before. I use the web. The web is a big part of my business. More than one hundred thousand people read this blog last year. I am not a newbie … and I failed to successfully register. Twice.
I failed not because the website was poorly designed or hard to use. It’s actually very good overall. I failed because I could not answer all the security questions they asked in order to verify that I am me.
I called the Social Security Administration and got the information I needed over the phone from a very friendly and personable representative. This was relatively easy and did not require that I divulge much information.
Phone easy. Website hard. I don’t see the efficiency in this.
Phone easy. Website hard. I don’t see the efficiency in this. And yet, a clearly stated value of their website (and your website) is to make things easier for me (as well as to save paper and money through the efficiency that is a fundamental benefit of doing such things as obtaining your records online instead of through the mail.)
In the call, I also asked about the website and whether she knew of other complaints. She was not forthcoming on this. I felt responsible to tell her they were being inefficient by making me call her. When I went on to tell her that I think the information they have about me—the information that I needed to know in order to satisfy them and prove that I am me—might be wrong, she told me I would have to contact the credit bureaus to correct anything. When I asked if I could register a personal complaint about the website not serving me well, she said no. They were recording my call, but I wonder if they are tracking the volume of failed attempts to register on the site?
She was kind enough to unlock my account so that I could try again to register on the website.
I did try again, being VERY careful…to…get…every…thing…right. I even looked stuff up on Google about myself to ensure its veracity.
I am not me enough to access my Social Security data.
I failed. I got locked out a second time.
I am not me enough to access my Social Security data.
Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who does not, off the top of my head, know the model year of the car I once owned while in grad school.
My wife also needed data from them, so she gave the website registration process a good college try (she does have a graduate degree).
She got locked out … and she was done. She was not going to bother with that ever again.
How much is such animosity worth?
Social Security is a good thing. The Social Security Administration is a government agency that I should have positive feelings for.
So why this?
The lady on the phone said it was for security. In this case apparently, to protect my data … from me
The lady on the phone said it was for security. In this case apparently, to protect my data … from me.
I wonder what percentage of potential accessors of their data have tried to pass through this particular security gauntlet and have, like my wife and I, failed and then just given up. Admittedly, this is not a critical service like obtaining healthcare coverage through a government exchange, but still, this is something I should be able to easily obtain … of the people, by the people and for the people and all that. Is—as this hot new Princeton study (PDF) suggests—democracy as we thought it existed in America just wishful thinking? Is my situation just a byproduct of poor user-testing on a well-intentioned and generally well-designed website, or is it a symptom of something larger? I hope it’s the former. I hope it’s just something they haven’t gotten to yet.
To reiterate my opener: I believe that, in general, the difference between the good and the great can sometimes be how effectively seemingly minor things are attended to. On the positive side, these things can be a trim tab. On the negative side, they can be an incitement to animosity and even brand disavowal. This is an example of one of those places. I want government to work. I want to believe it exists to serve, desires to be efficient, and is supporting the greater good. Perhaps this is why this situation upsets me. It’s an affront to my sense of pride.
The Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? effect
In case anyone is interested, here is the problem with the Social Security Administration website’s registration security protocols from a usability (UX) standpoint: It’s something we could call the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? effect.
Many of you have seen or heard of the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It was popular in the early 2000s and from its origins in the UK, eventually spread all over the world. It’s even the context of the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.
The game was simple. Fifteen seemingly easy multiple-choice questions were asked of contestants who, if they could answer all of them, would win $1,000,000. Part of the entertainment value of the show was how easy many of the questions were. The trick was that getting ALL of a series of fifteen—even relatively easy—questions correct was actually much more difficult than it sounded. To spice things up and enhance the gameplay, the game also had three “lifelines” to help the contestants. These were call a friend, ask the audience, and half the options.
My thought during my second unsuccessful attempt to get all the security questions correct on the Social Security website was this: I need a lifeline. No, I thought, I do not remember the model year of the car I bought in 1996, but I do know a lot of other things about myself! Maybe I could call my college girlfriend about the car …
My more serious point is that The People’s relationship to their government is actually a very important matter in a functioning democracy. So is access to our own publicly held data. Even if I don’t stand to collect a million dollars at the end of my working life, I do want to be able to learn what my Social Security income will be, and I should be able to do so without inordinate and unnecessary frustration.
Nothing is worse for a brand than to be hated or misunderstood because of a poorly executed or thoughtlessly designed tactical user-level interface.
I’m about twenty years from my official, gradually rising retirement age, and it’s natural for me to be thinking about it more as the year approaches. I asked a few of my friends to try their luck with registering on the Social Security Administration website (please try yours and tell me how it goes). My suspicion is that the older you are—and the more you actually need the information—the less likely you will be able to get it from the website. Among my friends and colleagues, the failure rate so far has been 66.6%. This is no joke if you extrapolate that out across the entire working-age population of the United States.
So what flower of wisdom has grown out of the ashes of my frustration? Other than an inferior product, there is almost nothing worse for a brand than inattention to the tactical user-level interface.
Now, excuse me while I attend to my civic duty as US citizen and web user …
Dear Social Security Administration:
Please sweat the details. Please make the online wall between me and my data easier to climb over. I grow tired quickly, as I am getting older now.
Personal update 8/23/2019
Having the issue forced by my financial advisor, I needed to know what my Social Security income will be as a component of my retirement planning. I am now 5 years(!) closer to retirement than when I first wrote this article and all subsequent attempts to use the website to obtain this information ended in failure.
So this morning, I got up early and went into the Social Security office and while I was there, I could not help but notice this sign in my service window …
What can I say? First it promises “convenient.” For a brand, not keeping a promise is much worse than not making the promise in the first place. And what you (the organization) think the promise is does not matter. It’s how your customers understand that promise.
Browsing the hundreds of comments that this post has attracted (and continues to attract) is a reminder to be careful of what promises you make!
The other point that the hundreds of comments underscore is the motivational power of frustration. If you scroll through the comments, it is hard not to appreciate people’s willingness to share their stories of frustration. This speaks to how easily frustration is amplified. In the age of Apple, Amazon, and Google, smoothly functioning interfaces that “just work” are normal, expected, and not worthy of comment. Poorly conceived, clumsy, and thoughtless interfaces are inspiration to outrage and the public sharing of negative stories. Frustration has acquired the power of vitality.
And excuse my sarcasm, but doesn’t this service sign clearly demonstrate a culture of exquisite care and attention to every detail of the human-level interface?
I did get what I needed from the visit: With the aid of the access code the SSA office gave me, I was able to successfully set up and access my Social Security account. This code allowed me to bypass all the prove-your-identity questions that are tripping up so many people. As it stands, it seems the website is designed to work in tandem with an in-person visit to the Social Security Administration.