I had a major communications disruption end of last week. It has nothing to do with Star Wars, phantom menaces, or annoying alien creatures. Instead, it was the result of an epic #UXfail. I bet you're imagining a website or app failure, but User eXperience (UX) is more encompassing than that. Here's what happened...

I'm a kiwi, but currently live in Malaysia. So, my New Zealand mobile phone number is relegated to 2 Factor Authentication (2FA) duties, and the occasional incoming call or text message. Everything was working fine three weeks ago.

Then end of last week I needed access some online accounts, including to send an email to the Kea Sigma Delta mailing list. All services in question use that phone number for 2FA. The first sign of any problem was that the 2FA messages never arrived.

Being unable to receive texts, can be caused by a whole variety of reasons including temporary service disruptions. So, I waited, and tried again. Still nothing. I tried resetting my phone. Nothing. What about the network operator settings? I get the message "unable to connect to network." That's odd.

More trouble-shooting. I log into my online account at the mobile phone provider (who will remain nameless). My phone number has been deleted from the account. I try to re-add the number, but that requires me to enter an authentication code that is sent via text. And, I cannot receive that text message.

So, I move on to their customer service. First, I have to get past an annoying AI chat-bot. Then, the guy/gal tells me that my number has been disconnected, and I need to go to one of their stores in person to get it back.

Huh? I'd already explained that I was far away in a foreign country. My service gets cut off with zero warning, and then I have to buy a plane ticket and fly home from half way round the world in order to get it back? Really? That's you're solution!?

I asked to be transferred to someone with higher authorization, but was told that transferring is impossible. I was also told to dial a number for help, which only works if your SIM card is currently active. So, a dead end.

Normally, you can top up your pre-paid account up to a month after deactivation. So I tried topping it up, but it failed.

"Okay, I'll use my wife's NZ SIM," I thought, and dialed the suggested customer support number. The result: "you are not authorized for this number." Goodbye.

I'm locked out of multiple important services, because my mobile phone number got deactivated. No, it wasn't just deactivated; it got completely deleted. And I'm supposed to go on an international flight just to get it back. Grrrrrr!

Agents in New Zealand

At this point, I reach out to my parents for help. They go to one of their stores in person the very next day... and get told that they cannot help. They don't have the ability to reactivate my SIM card either. My phone number is gone. Get a new SIM.

Back in Malaysia, I search online, and discover that there is a process to reactivate a lost SIM. An employee of the telco in question posted on a forum, and helped someone there. I can't contact him via the forum (whose email system is broken), so I arm my parents with the needed information, and they head to one of their main offices downtown.

By now it's been four days without access. As I write this, my parents are still at their offices. Someone there is trying to help them, but they need to verify my identity in order to reactivate the SIM card.

Alas, because that SIM card was deleted from my account, all they can go on is the scant information connected to that SIM card. I could answer the first question (how long have I had the number), but then was asked what I talked about on the last call to their customer service centre. That last call would have been years ago. No idea. The customer service rep. had no idea what else to ask me for identification, either. Dead end.

More calls back and forth with my parents. I discover that my phone's call log doesn't tell me which SIM card a call was made or received on. Situation still unresolved...

Update: They've managed to rescue my phone number, albeit with a new SIM. It's a workaround instead of a proper solution, but way better than me having to go through and change all the online accounts tied to that number for 2FA. A big thank you to my parents, and whoever helped them at the office downtown.

What We Can Learn From This Epic #UXFail

As engineer and business owner, it's good to learn from other people's mistakes. That way I make fewer mistakes of my own.

I appreciate that this telco has an employee who's doing his best. Beyond that, this sorry saga has a whole chain of failures that made it possible. Here are some quick lessons:

  1. Give customers multiple reminders before cutting them off
    Had I received a notification that the service was about to be deactivated, then I would have topped up the account immediately. To be fair, they did send one text message 6 months ago, which I found on an old phone. Since then, the phone worked fine, until they not only deactivated the number, but deleted it from my account too. Contrast that with Singtel, who bugged my wife for months to top up and reactivate her SIM card. They really do their best to get you back...
  2. Provide customers with a way to reactivate after deactivation
    To be fair, my phone service seems to have been half deactivated for months (receiving texts worked fine). They just didn't tell me (back to point #1). Still, going straight from working to deleted with no way to restore makes for very angry (ex) customers. This is especially true when the service you provide is critical
  3. Empower your customer service reps to reach out for help if needed
    Customer service reps are almost guaranteed to encounter problems that they can't solve on their own. So, enable them to reach out for help. Most customer support software allows you to "escalate" support requests, or transfer them to someone who can help
  4. Provide easy to use processes for when 2FA keys are lost
    I'm in the process of recovering my accounts. One service had me up and running within an hour. The other had a poor account recovery process. Guess which one I'm happy with?
  5. The human touch is still needed for weird situations
    Mine is an unusual situation. Very few of their customers live in a foreign country for years while maintaining a cell phone number from home. The vast majority will use their phones often enough that they need to top up regularly. So it's not surprising that their systems and processes aren't designed to handle it. Situations like these need intervention from humans who are empowered to override things manually
  6. Avoid using mobile phones for 2FA where possible
    This wouldn't have been a problem if all my accounts used a different 2FA mechanism that wasn't tied to a phone number (e.g., an authenticator app). I'm in the process of transferring those that I can to another 2FA method right now
  7. Put renewal dates in your calendar
    This whole saga would never have happened if I'd put the renewal date in my calendar

One More Thing...

The message that I was unable to send on Friday, was that the Kea Campus has new content in it. This message was supposed to go out to those who are members, and also those who signed up to the Kea Campus waitlist, and have yet to join.

If you're a Kea Campus member, then it's time to visit the campus again (and please subscribe to the "What's New" forum thread). If you haven't joined the campus yet, then click here to learn more.