I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

The Case of the Mysterious Vanishing Amazon Kindle

I broke down and ordered a Amazon Kindle a couple days ago. It is definitely a first generation device: not only does it look state-of-the art 1980’s, but it’s main mode of interaction is through a marginally clever hack to get around eInks slow refresh rate. However, the idea of being able to have all five books I’m always invariable a third of the way through, plus an always-on calendar (via it’s browser function and mobile Google calendar), always-on email, always-on maps, always-on Wikipedia, makes it (possibly) worth the price.

So late the other night, when my rationality had been worn down by a days debugging, my “buy” impulse beat out my fiscally responsible genes. I took out my credit card and purchased. Because I’m a previous Amazon customer I entered my email (which I haven’t bothered to update to my new address) and my password, clicked the buy button. It was done.

The next day, I checked up on the order. When was my new toy going to arrive? I logged in and… the order wasn’t there! I frantically clicked on every button I could find to no avail. Had I only imagined ordering the Kindle? I hadn’t been that tired. I checked my bank account and indeed the money had been deducted from my account. So where had my order gone?

Baffled I decided to call Amazon. They don’t make it easy to find their contact info. It took me 10 minutes of annoyed clicking to figure it out. In retrospect, I recommend gethuman.com, which is a giant database of the numbers and instructions for the fastest way to talk to a real-live human at any number of companies. Once I found the info, it wasn’t so bad: I entered my phone number and they called me when a representative was available. That’s good use of my time. It follows the second law of interfaces: Don’t waste the users time, or through inaction allow the user’s time to be wasted.

Amazon resolved the problem quickly. They told me to log-out and login with the same email, but a different password. I have a stack of passwords that range for very secure to marginally secure now that I’ve been using them for a couple years. Not remembering which one I had actually logged-in as, I tried a couple until one worked. My order still didn’t appear. She said to try again with a different password. I tried a couple more until another one worked. And lo! there was my order.

It turns out that Amazon allows users to have multiple accounts under the same email address. The thing about an identity is that it’s supposed to be unique, so allowing one identity to repesent multiple identities is as baffling as this sentence. Somehow I had managed to sign up twice using the same email address but different passwords, and never knew it. In fact, even knowing that I have two accounts doesn’t let me remember which one I used for purchasing the Kindle. I asked the representative why they allowed such odd behavior. The answer is that they have customers so far into the long tail that a number of their customers don’t have their own email address and instead use a friend’s or relatives email. I’m not sure that that is a convincing reason — free email addresses are trivially available — but I do understand how this may be a path of little resistance for users who are foreign to the online/computer world.

Even if Amazon kept their signle-to-many identity bit, my entire day’s worth of worry and confusion could have been solved with a little exposition: A link placed someplace on the page that says “There email address who@me.com has two accounts associated with in. You can switch accounts or learn more.”, or something that says “Don’t see your order? That may be because there are two accounts associated with who@me.com. Find out more here.”.

Before I found out what was going on, I felt betrayed that Amazon had accepted my money but ignored my order. That, in turn, dropped my trust-level of Amazon, even if only temporary. That’s something interfaces — especially for commerce sites — should avoid at all costs. Sometimes, a little exposition goes a long way.

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Also consider that many companies will “recycle” email addresses – reusing email addresses of previous employees. So will many ISPs.

The other thing is that for many people it’s easier (and they don’t lose anything) to create a new account than to remember their password or go through a “forgot my password” procedure. That said, Amazon.com will actually notify you if you try to create a new account with an email address that’s already used. I just tried it and it said “Although you indicated you’re a new customer, an account already exists for xxxxxxxxxx@xxxxxx.com.”


I really have to wonder just how many fringe cases the one described to you they actually have. It seems to me that the number of situations of people being baffled is far more likely. I never remember what my usernames are when I go to sites I don’t login to frequently, so I suspect this problem could bite me too. Nice to have the warning. :)



Thomas

““There email address who@me.com has two accounts associated with in. You can switch accounts or learn more.”

And in fact, that’s exactly what they do if you are a “corporate account” holder. You maintain two accounts with the same credentials, and are asked to choose which one you want to use when you sign in. That could easily be extended to any credentials that matched two accounts.



Ellen

This story seems a little embellished to me. The Kindle’s actually not currently available–they’ve sold out and have been for some time. And Amazon doesn’t actually charge your credit card (or touch your bank account) until your stuff ships.

In fact the Kindle page says that specifically: “Order now and we’ll deliver when available. …Your credit card will not be charged until we ship the item.

So Aza, although your point about the confusion of multiple logins is right on, I don’t actually believe you when you write that after your order “a couple of days ago”: “I checked my bank account and indeed the money had been deducted from my account.”



Joseph Huang

maybe the money was on “hold” and showed up as charged when it really wasn’t?



Patrick McElhaney

To create a new account on Amazon, you enter your email address and select “I’m a new customer.”

I tried entering my email address (already registered on Amazon) and the new customer option, and got this message:

Important Message
Although you indicated you’re a new customer, an account already exists for foobar123@gmail.com.

I was given the option of entering my password for my existing account or creating a new account.

That may be new since you registered your second account, but IMHO they’ve made it reasonably difficult to do create a second account by mistake (without making it too hard to create a second account intentionally).

Amazon’s been around a long time, and they’ve used email address for identity as long as I can remember. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the policy predates free web mail and multiple addresses per dialup account.



Ellen

@Joseph: “maybe the money was on “hold” and showed up as charged when it really wasn’t?”

No, that’s not how Amazon does it. Like it says right on the Kindle page: ‘your credit card will not be charged until we ship the item.” They don’t place a “hold” on your funds (retailers cannot do that anyway), nor does your bank.



Ben Turner

For a long time, Amazon has allowed multiple accounts with the same email address but different passwords, dating back to the old days when email addresses weren’t as easy to come by, and allowing the same email address to have multiple accounts mean they could get more people placing orders.

Sure, email accounts are a dime a dozen today, but what would Amazon do with all of the old accounts that share email addresses? Believe me, many people within Amazon would love to do away with this situation, but I think Amazon just isn’t willing to axe the users with identical email addresses.



Drew Simchik

I’d been hoping this article would be about the Kindle itself rather than a quirk of Amazon’s credentials handling, so I was most interested in the first paragraph. Unfortunately it’s somehow been mangled:

“…it’s main mode of interaction is through a marginally clever hack to get around eInks slow refresh rate. However, the idea of being able to have all five books I’m always invariable a third of the way through, plus an always-on calendar…”

I’d love to know what you meant to say. Can you fix it? (P.S. You can send the extra apostrophes in “it’s” to needy children. ;))



wILL

@Ellen, I think you misread it.

Aza made the order “a couple [of] days ago”. The day after he made the order he checked the Amazon site to see when the Kindle would arrive – “The next day, I checked up on the order” – and couldn’t find his order. He wrote this article “a couple [of] days” after making the order – at least the day after checking the order.

Taking the shortest time line:

Day 1 – make order
Day 2 – check order, get confuse, find order
Day 3 – post article



tony

okay, i thought aza was some kind of bad ass and wanted to learn how to be more like him but after reading about he can’t figure out how to order stuff on amazon, panicked thinking jeff bezos would steal his money, and when finding it was his error of having created two accounts on the same email blaming amazon for not informing, sounds like he is an interface nazi that blames everything on poor interface. (oh the interface shouldn’t let me create two accounts and if it does it shoudl warn me blah blah) uv used internet/computers long enough to know every site/program has its quirks, deal with them and move on

on top of that he ordered a kindle which is retarded



randy

oh correction, the article implies that aza has not two but three amazon accounts on one email address. Guess reading the important message ”
Important Message
Although you indicated you’re a new customer, an account already exists for” was not enough hand holding for aza. maybe they should come up with a paperclip for amazon to give you hints like “hey maybe you should buy a ps3 instead of a kindle”



k

Wow. Some of you completely miss the point.

The point is not that humans can’t figure out bad UI. Most of us are doing it all the time. The point is we shouldn’t have to.

The funny thing is we learn to deal with bad UI conventions, habitually, and we think they are not a problem. This is an assumption we make that sometimes harms us.

Different types of people make different types of assumptions under different conditions. Efficient and/or intelligent people may make completely different assumptions compared to inefficient and/or unintelligent people. The assumption, in either case, can easily appear obviously incorrect or “stupid” in retrospect, but that does not mean it is. Assumptions are efficient. Doing away with them absolutely would be ridiculous, if even possible in a non-virtual world.

Some people here have put down Aza for making a reasonable assumption. In doing so those same people made at least two unreasonable, or at the very least unimportant, assumptions.


This story seems a little embellished to me. The Kindle’s actually not currently available–they’ve sold out and have been for some time. And Amazon doesn’t actually charge your credit card (or touch your bank account) until your stuff ships.


Also consider that many companies will “recycle” email addresses – reusing email addresses of previous employees. So will many ISPs.



Sex

Also consider that many companies will “recycle” email addresses – reusing email addresses of previous employees. So will many ISPs.


I think that’s a pretty neat idea. My current watch is a Timex that mimics a chronograph digitally but has both an analog and digital face: I can hide the digital part of it by pressing a button and leave the clean lines of a analog watch (which I prefer). Since I enjoy the benefits of digital for cycling and training and such, it’s nice to have that option.


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So late the other night, when my rationality had been worn down by a days debugging, my “buy” impulse beat out my fiscally responsible genes. I took out my credit card and purchased. Because I’m a previous Amazon customer I entered my email (which I haven’t bothered to update to my new address) and my password, clicked the buy button. It was done.


That may be new since you registered your second account, but IMHO they’ve made it reasonably difficult to do create a second account by mistake (without making it too hard to create a second account intentionally).


thnks
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So late the other night, when my sex rationality had been worn down by a days debugging, my “buy” impulse beat out my fiscally responsiblesexitim genes. I took out my credit card and purchased. Because I’m a porno previous Amazon customer I entered my email (which I haven’t bothered to update to my new address) and my password,seks seyret clicked the buy button. It was done.


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