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When Life Should Imitate The Web

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Lately we’ve been having some spirited discussions about “upsell” and its ubiquity in our daily lives.

Of course it’s a basic tenet of business, and has surely been around since long before there was a buzzword for it (“how about a gourd with that beard, then?”). Furthermore, if you want to be successful in business, you’d better be good at it. But lately I’ve been noticing how upsell is becoming more and more blatant and in some cases downright absurd—and the seconds and minutes that are stolen from me while I field litanies of upsell questions are starting to add up. Experiences are suffering.


At its most basic, it appears as “would you like to Super Size that for just a dollar more?” It’s a pretty logical question in the workflow, doesn’t take much time, and requires only a simple “yes” or “no” to get past it. Fair enough. I have no doubt that this little phrase has proven extremely lucrative.


A slightly evolved variant is the “can I get you something to eat with that?” that you’ll now experience at Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, etc. It irks me a tad that I have to field this question anytime I just want a simple coffee drink, but maybe I’m in the minority there. It’s minor, it’s quick, and I guess it could be argued that it’s reasonable given the workflow.


It becomes a little more irritating as the queries veer further from the likely goal in pursuit of the upsell. Ever go up to a Rita’s Water Ice on a scorching hot day, order up a cool, refreshing treat, and then be asked “would you like a hot pretzel with that?” Hm. Actually, when I started sweating through my shirt and pulled over for some refreshment, I hadn’t really considered a warm hunk of bread. Now I’m used to it of course, but the first few times it definitely threw me. Yes, in the grand scheme it’s a small hurdle between me and my cherry gelato, but OK, now I know Rita’s has pretzels. And you do too.


Let’s ratchet this up a notch. Go buy some electronics from Best Buy or Apple, and wait for the significant upsell at checkout for a warranty or “Apple Care” protection plan. How about buying a car? After you’ve made peace with the monthly payment you’ll be shelling out for the next five years, you need to meet with the head of sales or someone similar and endure the endless waterfall of warranty combinations that could ratchet that payment up hundreds of dollars… and the “hm… should I?” question is sometimes literally phrased as a question of life or death. I always feel assaulted by this process. One reason is that at no point can you simply end the transaction—you’re forced to hear the explanation of each option (often with the person apologizing, but they “have to ask“), and it’s time intensive.


And finally, the upsell experience that got me thinking about writing this in the first place: the U.S. Post Office. Every time I go into any local post office, the experience goes something like this:

  1. Stand in line and clearly listen to every person in front of me endure the script I will be hit with when I reach the counter.
  2. Approach the counter with an oversized envelope to ship.
  3. Be asked if my envelope contains anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous. It’s federal law, so even though it’s annoying and I said “no, it’s only a DVD” after “liquid”, and then “no, no, no” afterward, I get it.
  4. Be told that it can arrive by 9:00 AM tomorrow morning for $32, though I already said I just wanted whatever was cheapest. Repeat this, and perhaps hear one or two more options before reluctant acceptance that I’ll just be going with Priority Mail for $1.32, thanks.
  5. Be asked if I want confirmation or tracking. I’ll give them this one, sometimes I do.
  6. Be asked if I want any stamps. I’ll give them this one too, sometimes I do.
  7. Be asked if I want any packing materials. Now this is getting a little silly. I saw the packing materials display, and if I wanted them I would have grabbed them. I endure.
  8. Be asked if I want to open a P.O. Box. OPEN A P.O. BOX. Every. Single. Time I’m in there. Who in their right mind figured they should add this to the script these poor clerks have to recite all day long? FOR WHOM IS A P.O. BOX AN IMPULSE BUY?
  9. You get the picture. Depending on the length of the line in front of you, this process can eat up your lunch hour in a jiffy.

Now think of your online business transactions. Most self-respecting e-commerce retailers wouldn’t think of forcing their customers to endure experiences like those described above. They know that if they employ annoying upsell tactics they’ll be skewered by the design community and their users will flee for alternatives. Teams of goal oriented, user-focused designers (the kind that are often employed to design digital experiences and too often not for real-world ones) would never allow this kind of workflow interruption and non-sequitor questioning/clicking on the way to goal completion.

For instance, on Amazon the upsell is everywhere, but it’s off to the side and there if you’re interested. On Amazon, you don’t see your final cost and then get solicited for additional warranties and protection packages to jack up that price (though a default to Free Shipping when it’s available would be a nice touch, guys). On Amazon, you get recommendations based on what is in your cart and what you’ve purchased before, not random recommendations from a vast list of products simply because they exist. These are just a few examples of how digital experience design has now evolved to the point where it can have positive impacts back to poor experience design in the real world. We’re not going to get away from upsell, and I’m not suggesting we should—but like most things, there’s a right way and a wrong way.

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