Phone verification mishaps


I don’t know who had the brilliant idea to use automated phone calls to verify certain online transactions. In my experience, computers aren’t very good at making phone calls, and these transactions have a high failure rate. Among other things, the systems rarely let you enter an extension to dial, and they don’t warn you about how many tries you get before you’re locked out for good. This adds up to a very sour user experience.

Every time I’ve had to use one of these awful things, it was to verify a business transaction. So, the number the system was calling is my work number. Like virtually everyone, I have an extension that you dial from the main line to reach me directly. Ironically, very few of the phone verification systems can even dial an extension. Some let you type it in, but instead of dialing it, they just play a recording that says “Please transfer this call to extension 1234.” Yeah, because the automated prompts that most companies use are going to understand that. In other cases, there’s no way to even provide an extension, so you have to tell everyone to send the call to you if they get it first.

With all that said, you’d think these systems would be very lenient, giving you ample chances to retry the verification call until it reaches you directly. But this is the opposite of what happens. I used a system last week that gave you two or three tries, and didn’t hold long enough for the call to get to me (via dumb luck or transfer). Once I reached the secret cutoff, the system said that verification had failed, and I would have to complete the process by mail. Was I warned about this impending cutoff or given the chance to enter an alternate number after the first few attempts? Nope.

If you happen to be involved in designing phone verification systems, I would recommend a few simple ways to improve them. First, allow the system to dial an extension, or even a series of numeric entries and pauses as specified by the user. (This capability existed in pagers back in the mid-90s, so surely it’s possible today.) Next, tell the user how long the system will hold during each call while it waits for someone to answer, so they know what to expect. And finally, if there’s going to be an arbitrary limit to how many times you can try to complete the process, make sure this is disclosed upfront, and give the user other options (e.g. entering an alternate phone number) if their initial attempts aren’t successful.