Originally published in the MailChimp UX Newsletter.


I’ve judged books by covers, against the warnings from parents, teachers, and my own common sense. Yet I’d rationalize this decision with Olympic-level logic leaps:

  • Fact: This cover looks amazing.
  • Assumption: Likely, the author had the good sense to approve this design.
  • Deduction: The author is smart and has great aesthetics.
  • Ergo: This book must be well written.

I’d repeat this logical sleight-of-hand numerous times, and I was burned by my decisions more often than not.

These days, I repeat this pattern with apps, branding, and experience design. And just as the connection between the cover and the content is tenuous, so too is the relation between form and function. When the promise of a great experience is undermined by small imperfections, the experience—and our trust—erodes. Imperfection scales quickly.

A few years ago, I highlighted the disparity between Apple’s overall design sense and the presentation of their terms of service when installing software. From the design of their website and apps to the layout of their stores, and from the packaging to the products, Apple exemplifies a consciousness about aesthetics. Yet they seemed to overlook a crucial touchpoint in their legal documents. Granted, it’s legalese; but why not make this as beautiful as every other facet of their brand? The incredibly cohesive Apple experience unravels just a hair when I install or update software. When each subsequent iOS update diminishes my battery life or makes my calendar more unusable, the imperfections mount and the experience erodes further.

These imperfections and anomalies are everywhere, and they scale. Take, for example, the handy smartphone apps that replace shopping rewards cards. I divide my grocery shopping between two large chains—Kroger and Sam’s Club. Kroger offers a loyalty card, which earns me a discount in exchange for any sense of my privacy (I’m ok with this—kale is expensive). I swipe my card at checkout, and Kroger discounts my groceries. Easy enough.

The card takes up space in my wallet, and I was excited at the launch of the Kroger iOS app. The app promised to replace my card with a digital copy, which I could scan at checkout. Again, easy enough. Except that it wasn’t easy: the register couldn’t read the digital version of my loyalty card. And because I use self-checkout, help was not immediately available. The promise and outcome of the app weren’t aligning, and the imperfections were scaling quickly.

Finally, a cashier assisted me, and advised me that the digital cards are not compatible with the cash registers in use at Kroger—many customers have tried, and many customers have resorted to asking for help. By releasing an app that raised but did not meet expectations, Kroger had only succeeded in lowering the overall shopping experience for—and trust of—a number of their customers.

I went through this exact scenario again at Sam’s Club, where they offer low gasoline prices to members. Having replaced my card with their iOS app, I stopped by to gas up my car and found that the pumps don’t even have card readers. Puzzling, and frustrating. The attendant on duty actually laughed at me and my app, acknowledging that she had no way to scan it. No card, no gasoline, and an incredibly aggravating experience with an unhelpful store employee. Imperfection strikes again.

This is how bad experience goes from a one-off to an epidemic—the app that was supposed to empower me instead made me helpless; the staff now has to stop what they’re doing to assist me with something I should be doing on my own. The imperfections have a domino effect: if the staff is being taxed with unnecessary work, morale drops, and service worsens.

I continue to shop at Kroger and Sam’s Club, but I do so begrudgingly out of habit and convenience. Now that I’ve been burned by unmet expectations, I feel little loyalty to Kroger (ironic, considering the loyalty card started this whole chain of events) or Sam’s Club. If their respective apps had worked flawlessly, I would have taken pleasure in the novelty and convenience of no longer needing my card. Instead, I’m more likely to consider alternative stores where my perception isn’t diminished.

We see this scenario play out across industries: apps with killer marketing but little function; stores with great branding but poor quality; large musical events with tons of headliners but only three port-o-johns. And at MailChimp, we’re the first to admit that we’re not immune to these scaling imperfections. As Federico Holgado explains later in this issue, by removing a crucial step in building a campaign, we eroded trust and functionality in favor of what we assumed was a streamlined experience.

When trust is damaged, an opportunity exists to—if not make everything perfect—at least begin reparations. Late last year, FitBit launched the Force fitness tracker. The Force was an evolution of their previous products, and by all accounts they had nailed it: the product looked good, the software worked, and customers were happy… until they began to report skin irritations from wearing the band. At this point, FitBit had a choice: hope that the irritations were limited, and work with (literally) irritated customers on a case-by-case basis, or own up to the issue and announce that anyone with a Force could send it back for a replacement (which is what they did). The former would have been easier, but it would have shaken the faith of current and potential customers; the latter is a broad demonstration that FitBit wants to do right by the people who buy their products.

Kroger or Sam’s Club could have taken a cue from FitBit by having protocols in place at stores for customers with digital cards, or by emailing the folks who loaded their apps to explain that it might be best not to ditch the printed cards just yet.

Acknowledging the situation hurts, but maintaining imperfections hurts worse: customers will defect for the promise of a better experience elsewhere.