Earlier this month, I had quite a shock when I logged in to my Verizon account to check my bill and data usage. It was all due to this little widget located right in the middle of Verizon’s user dashboard:
Knowing how much data you’ve used is pretty important since overages can cost you money. So, at first glance, what do you think this widget is telling you? (I’ve obscured some of the personal account info displayed in the widget.)
Let’s break things down first. The widget’s design is dominated by a big blue gauge that has a bold percentage located inside of it. These elements appear to show you how much of your plan’s data you’ve used so far in the current billing period. Two things further reinforce that impression: the widget’s title (“View usage”) and the fact that the widget is using a gauge.
Take these things together and it appears that I’ve already used 82% of my plan’s data. Which is concerning since I’m only a third of the way into my current billing period.
However, the exact opposite is the case: the “View usage” widget actually shows you how much data you have left on your plan for the current billing period. In other words, it’s telling me that I still have 82% of my plan data left, not that I’ve used 82% of it.
From a visual standpoint, then, the “View usage” widget is self-conflicting:
- The widget’s title is “View usage.” The wording of that title implies something additive, i.e., the amount of data you’ve used so far.
- The gauge’s design, however, is subtractive. The gauge’s blue part draws your eye but that’s not what tells you how much data you’ve actually used. The more subdued gray part tells you that.
In other words, you have to combine some conflicting messages to figure out what, exactly, the widget is telling you.
This first became clear to me when I logged into my Verizon account near the start of the billing period. I nearly freaked out when I saw that the blue gauge was almost full and the percentage was in the 90s. The widget seemed to be telling me that I had less than 10% of my data left after just a few days into the current billing cycle. I had to stare long and hard at it before I realized, with great relief, that I was being told the exact opposite.
What finally clued me in was the smaller text appearing below the percentage. I’ve obscured it in the screenshot for privacy reasons, but that text tells you how much data you have remaining (e.g., “4.1÷5.0 Gb remaining”). Despite being the key to deciphering the widget, it’s easy to miss because it’s so overshadowed by the other, more prominent elements.
To be fair to Verizon’s designers, perhaps they were thinking of the widget as something akin to a car’s fuel gauge. You fill up your car’s gas tank at the gas station and it gets empty as time passes. Similarly, you get a full data “tank” at the start of a billing period and it decreases as time passes. However, that parallel breaks down for at least one reason: it’s possible to go over your allotted data within a billing period. (Conversely, you can’t use less gas than an empty tank; there’s no such thing as “negative gas.”)
A better approach would be to treat plan data like a limit or boundary. As time goes on, you get closer to that boundary and if you’re not careful, you can cross it. Therefore, the “View usage” widget should display info progressively. It’s empty (all gray) at the start of the billing period and then fills with color as time passes (and data usage increases). For added effect, the gauge’s color could change as the period progresses, becoming orange and then red as you get closer to your plan’s limit, like so:
Simultaneously, the big bold percentage increases along with the gauge to show how much of your plan you’ve used to date. These simple changes can make everything clearer. The widget above now tells me that I’ve used 82% of my plan so far. The gauge’s color provides further indication that I’m getting pretty close to my plan’s limit.
Currently, whenever I log in to my Verizon account, I always second-guess what Verizon is trying to tell me — which isn’t a good thing. A user interface widget is flawed if it causes users to do any of the following:
- They take extra time to decipher what the widget is telling them.
- They think the widget is telling them the opposite of what it’s actually telling them.
- They doubt whatever the widget is telling them.
These are bad enough in any situation. They become especially problematic when the widget is telling users something — data usage, in this case — that could cost them money if they don’t understand what they’re being told.
I’m not suggesting that Verizon is being willfully obtuse in order to confuse customers so they pay more in data overage fees. But the current method they’re using to communicate important information to their customers is flawed and confusing, with lots of room for improvement.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.