As technology in the US (and elsewhere) has improved, more and more people are moving out of the rural areas surrounding cities, and settling in city centers and suburban areas. Whether moving downtown or to the ‘burbs, the people are renting. And they’re renting more and more. This has become a problem in a lot of ways. Because of the inability of housing policies to both keep up with demand, and adapt to this new “renting paradigm”, society as a whole has reaped the whirlwind. Higher rents, more homelessness, and more. Even for the privileged, the drastic increase in density in city centers can cause problems.

Bear with me a moment. What I'm about to tell you might, at first, *sound* like a first-world problem, trust me: there’s more to it than that. After our recent move to California, my wife and I had the great pleasure of also looking for new policies for rental, car, etc. With this comes many phone calls, lots of internet research, and the occasional moment of frustration.

Urbanization map via US Census

Urbanization map via US Census

In particular, getting quotes for auto insurance has been troublesome. Because of our address. When a city gets to be a certain size, you start to see these weird “1/2” and “1/4” mailing addresses / apartment numbers cropping up. More people in smaller spaces + inability of government to update quickly (a la USPS) = frustration for citizens.

And so, the point of frustration: As with updating our address with our credit card companies, we needed to provide our mailing address to the insurance companies in order to get quotes. On more than half of the websites set up by companies like eSurance, Mercury Insurance, and believe it or not, Google, address fields return an error when attempting to include slashes. Yes, despite the function of the internet widely including the use of slashes (http://, anyone?) form fields, evidently, have yet to evolve.

This in itself is an annoyance. It means, rather than use the system developed in order to *save the company time*, the company must now 1) deal with a frustrated customer who 2) is calling them instead of getting online, and 3) will be less likely to buy from them. And all this, from a slash, or an inability to parse a 0.

Google's "Compare" tool doesn't accept zip codes starting with a "0"... sorry New England.

Google's "Compare" tool doesn't accept zip codes starting with a "0"... sorry New England.

Google’s failure was the most surprising. While their insurance comparison tool is lovely (it’s based on Material Design!), if it can’t accept modern addresses, it’s not very useful. It won't accept zip codes that start with a "0"... sorry New England. As with other rate comparison tools online (Compare.com, for instance) the interest in reducing friction for the customer is subsumed by the frustrating user experience.

Here’s why this is truly disturbing to me, as a service designer. If this is happening to me, as a person of relative privilege - both in terms of access and technology - then what is the person who has never handled exceptions in forms doing? How are they responding to the frustrating experience? I know what to do - Tweet at them. Email them. Let them know it sucks.


Even then, if they get back to you, they tend not to respond proactively. Mercury Insurance didn’t respond. eSurance told me to call their service department. When given the opportunity to proactively reach out to a potential customer, don’t shrug it off by putting the onus on them. In the end, 21st Century won: they called me.

First, they ask if they could walk me through the process over the phone. Then, they put me with a representative (If you’re reading this, thank you, John Swavola!) who is interested in customer first, then service. And finally, they answered every question I had, stupid or not. Now, maybe I would have had a similar experience with another company. I can’t say for sure, because they didn’t reach out.

But back to why this is disturbing. Imagine you’re a person looking for housing assistance, or to start a small business. Those processes are order of magnitudes more complex than a simple auto insurance quote. Now imagine every time they try to fill a field, they get hit with a warning or error. Imagine how quickly the frustration grows.

Now, imagine how many people don’t find housing, or don’t start businesses. Not because they don’t want to, but because the process is so complex, circuitous, and flawed that it’s beyond their ability (or patience-level) to do so. Everyone should have car insurance. Everyone should have housing. We can do better.


About the author:

Ethan Bagley is a service designer, facilitator, philosopher, and many other things. He lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his wife and dog, and travels the world solving problems as a part of EB Advising. When he’s not creating solutions, he’s volunteering with Hack for LAAtheists United, and other mission-driven organizations.