The importance of feedback in web applications, a case study

How to make subscription activation a pain (feedback is AWOL)

When we engage with a web application, the interaction is something like a conversation.

A click is not unlike asking a conversational partner a question. We expect confirmation that the listener heard the question (a head nod, a verbal cue) and some sort of answer. Even if the answer is “I don’t know.”

This leads to a key heuristic for web (and mobile) design: making system status visible. That’s a fancy/engineering way of saying that applications need to provide feedback, to respond after we, figuratively, ask a question.

heuristic - web application status
Jakob Nielsen (1995):
“The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.”
Don Norman Design of Everyday Things
Don Norman (1988):
Does the application let us know what is happening via appropriate feedback?

The web application in this case study violates both concepts.

Seattle Times subscriber account creation

I recently subscribed to the paper/online Seattle Times. The paper sent me an email reminding me to activate the online subscription.

Seattle Times subscriber email

It’s been a while since I had a print subscription, but I’ve had an online account (for commenting) for a long, long time. I used the same email to subscribe that I had been using for commenting.

It wasn’t clear from the email what “activation” meant, but the link led to a page with two options:  “log in” or “activate account”.

Seattle Times activate subscription
The “activate your account” link leads here.

Since I was activating an subscription, I started on the right. But when I tried to create an account using the email associated with my subscription, I was informed that the email was in use.

Seattle Times activate account

Seattle Times activate account - error message

The “activate your account” email did not acknowledge that I already have an account with this email address at the Seattle Times. Neither does the landing page.

And yet the two databases appear to be linked.

Given that linkage, the activation landing page could have pre-populated my email address and prompted for password.

If using a different email with the account is an important feature, how might subscriber services have provided an option for using a different email address? Here’s one (although I believe that a change like this should be managed after activation):

Alternative subscriber activation
This is one way that the activation application could be more friendly.

After logging in, I was greeted by this confusing set of options:

Seattle Times activation screen
Why is activation a two-step process? Why would non-subscribers be able to see this page?

I had clicked a link titled “Activate my account” to get to this screen.

After clicking that link, I should have been greeted by a “success” or “thank you” or “we need more information” message. Not an warning complete with yet-another-activate-link! Moreover, how in the world could a non-subscriber reach an activation page?

After I clicked this second “Activate” link, more hoops. Note, if activation is a multi-step process, this should have been the screen that greeted me after my first “Activate account” click.

Seattle Times activate step three

Given that this a  multi-step process, it would be helpful to add that information to each step. Think Amazon checkout.

Possible multi-step information
Provide information about multi-step processes; there are three steps in the Seattle Times process

Next, missing feedback

I provided subscription details in the above screen, which led to this confirmation summary.

Seattle Times subscriber activation
No matter how many times I clicked “finish,” nothing else happened. Browser and operating system: Chrome Version 41.0.2251.0 dev (64-bit) / Mac OS 10.9.4

It’s at this point that the application stopped talking to me.

I clicked “Finish” and nothing happened. Well, I could see bits were being exchanged, but the page status didn’t change.

I clicked again. Nothing.



Am I finished, ie, is my subscription activated?

I can’t tell because system feedback has ceased. The page (system status) is unchanged.

Key take-away

This is not unlike having someone hang up in the middle of a telephone (or IM or text) conversation.

It’s critical that web (and mobile) applications finish the conversation!

When customers are left hanging, like I was, we don’t know whether or not we have been successful. It’s the application’s responsibility (ie, the web devs, PMs and so on) to complete the conversation.

It is possible that this is “the end” — that I have successfully activated my subscription.

But it’s also possible that the application doesn’t like my browser. Or that the backend was busy. Or something. In any of those cases, the application should have told me that it was having problems.

But by its remaining silent (the page remaining unchanged), I just can’t tell.



The system had not activated my account.

I started over with Safari. This time instead of remaining “silent”, that “Finish” click led to this:

Seattle Times activate subscription success




When I logged in to manage a vacation hold, I got this double-message:

Seattle Times
One of my pet peeves: acknowledging that I am logged in while asking me to do something as though I were not logged in. In this case, it’s even worse.
Cross-posted from UX Notes @

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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