How about we start this week with a short quiz: What do you reckon is the most common thing that visitors to the Royal Mail website will be looking for? I'll give you a clue: Christmas is coming and it's likely that you'll be sending out lots of items using the old-fashioned "put it in an envelope and stick a stamp on it" delivery method, rather than the email approach you use the rest of the year.
My answer would be that, faced with the regular rises in the price of stamps, most people will want to know how much it costs to post a Christmas card to their relatives in the next town or city. The fact that here in the UK we're blessed with a pricing system that takes into account not only the weight of a simple envelope, but also the width and the thickness, means that this isn't a trivial question.
So, faced with just this query posed by my wife this week, I did the obvious "look on t'Internet" thing. Drop into http://www.royalmail.com and scan the page for a link to the price list. Oh, there isn't one. Not in the menu bar or in the list of links at the bottom of the page. Hmmm, but there is a big "Personal Customers" button, so click that.
Ahh, nice pictures of the special Christmas stamps, and a Postcode Finder, and even a Price Finder. Click that. Now there's six big buttons, including another Price Finder and ones for packets, bulk mail, a calculator for the price of posting more than 1000 items (something "personal customers" probably do quite often?), and an online dispatch manager. Wow. So I click Price Finder and it says "Service Update - unavailable".
Go back to the Home page and start again. Click the Payments tab on the Personal Customers page and there's a link saying Stamps. Click that and it says "Sorry, the page you requested cannot be found". Go back to the Home page again and, this time, click the Site Map link in the page footer. Amongst the hundred or so links is Postal Prices. It's even in the section marked Top Links, though how it can be a top one is hard to understand when it takes this long to find it...
And what you get are two tabs saying "Find a postcode" and "Find an address". If I'd wanted to do either of those things I'd probably have clicked one of the links to them ten minutes ago. So back to the Home page again and click Personal Customers for the third time. There's a link on the right that says "Print postage online" so, out of desperation, I try that. Just a minute - On the left there's a panel that says Top Links, and one of them says Postal Prices.
OK, so let's not get too excited, we went to the Postal Prices page before and it was broken. But no! This link goes to a different Postal Prices page. There's another button to go to the (broken) Price Finder, but there in the small text halfway down the page is a link to "View a full list of prices"! The page it opens has a bold link right at the top asking if you are "having trouble downloading or printing PDFs?" I sure am - I can't find any!
The rest of the page has links to calculators and PDFs for business account customers, help for new business customers, and stuff for franking customers. But there in the middle of the "Stamps and franking customers" section is a link to "UK Prices Wall Chart 2011". It opens a really nice PDF that tells you exactly what you need to know. And it only took fifteen minutes of increasing amazement at how hard Royal Mail must have worked to make the task this difficult.
Mind you, on the Home page there's a note explaining that "More work has been completed over the weekend to identify and fix some of the issues with our website ... following difficulties experienced by some customers over the past couple of weeks". Their Director of Customer Experience explains that "my team and I continue to work hard to resolve outstanding issues as quickly as possible".
I suppose I could just have gone to Bing and typed the question instead of becoming entangled in the horrors of a site that actually has a whole page devoted to "Website Technical Difficulties". Though you have to wonder (a) who actually tests the site with ordinary customers to see what they most commonly look for, and (b) why they chose what is probably the busiest time of year for postal services to do things that broke the website.
A lesson, perhaps, for us all. Here at p&p we focus strongly on getting and acting on feedback from our target market and from users at large. We also work hard to make sure stuff works before we release it. It's a design pattern that is probably most likely to result in satisfied customers...