There are only two acceptable effects your web site should have on your customers:

  1. No effect at all. It’s just there, and maybe they never even use it.
  2. An improvement in the way they interact with your organization or business, by making it easier for them to buy things, sign up for events, get in touch with you, make donations or learn about your work.

That’s it. A web site that creates any other experience for your customers must be recognized as a failure. If your web site makes interactions with your business worse than before the site existed, you have done something very, very wrong.

Sadly, that happens.

Today, we offer case study of a business that did just that: used their web site to make interacting with them far, far worse than before. And, because Halloween is on the horizon, we’ve chosen an appropriate study: a funeral home.

Business Background

The funeral home in question isn’t an average funeral home, whose interactions with its customers usually span only a few occasions: the choice of funeral home after a death (often made quickly), the arrangements for services, and the receipt and payment of the bill for services rendered. The funeral home under discussion today is a Jewish funeral home, whose interactions with its customers in many cases span decades.

In Jewish tradition, the bereaved family members recall the death of their loved ones annually in perpetuity. Every year, part of the ritual practice of Judaism includes a remembrance of the departed family member on the anniversary of his or her death. This annual remembrance is known as yahrzeit, and even nonobservant Jews often observe yahrzeit by lighting a memorial candle and reciting a simple prayer.

Yahrzeit is observed on the anniversary of the Hebrew date on which the person died, not on the Roman calendar date. Since most western Jews do not keep track of the Hebrew calendar date, Jewish funeral homes have, for decades and decades, offered yahrzeit reminders by mail to their customers. Usually simple postcards, these reminders help ensure that the family observes on the correct date. These postcards are a service upon which many Jewish families have come to rely.

The funeral home in today’s example created a series of headaches and messes for their customers.

The First Two Headaches

A Jewish funeral home must send out thousands and thousands of these reminders each year. The expense and the hassle is likely to be significant. It stands to reason that these businesses would look to transfer this work to a more efficient system. With the internet being able to automate so much, and with so few people without access to email, it’s only logical that such a business would work to come up with a web-based solution to this problem. Based on the experience of one of our clients, here is the first mistake one Jewish funeral home made in the process of digitizing their yahrzeit reminders.

Our client received this notice as a sticker attached to a reminder about his father’s yahrzeit (we’ve removed the name of the business):

Let’s begin with the announcement of finality. Jewish funeral homes have been sending their yahrzeit reminders through the mail for generations. The recipient of this letter is now expected, as he prepares for the annual mourning of his father, to begin the process of setting up electronic reminders. It’s not optional, and it assumes that he has access to the internet. While there are certainly more and more people of every generation connected to the internet every year, among the recipients of this letter were likely to be many, many elderly people. Picture an elderly woman receiving this letter as her annual reminder to light the memorial candle for her deceased husband. Does she have a computer? Does she know how to use it?

The second issue is purely one of information architecture. In order to get to the form this funeral home wants their elderly customer to complete, that customer has to click on three separate links after typing in the URL for the web site itself. There are two ways this could have been done more easily:

  1. Create a subdomain for the form, something like
  2. Put a big, bright “YAHRZEIT REMINDER” button on the home page of the funeral home’s web site, front and center at the top of the page.

Neither option is costly or labor-intensive, and both would have even allowed them to save ink and real estate on that bright sticker above.

The Third and Fourth Headaches

Let’s assume that our elderly recipient of that notice had followed the instructions — typing in the URL and clicking on About and Overview. On the side of the Overview page, this is what she would have seen:

The next instruction on the sticker was to click on the words “Digital Yahrzeit Reminder.” Unfortunately, those words aren’t clickable. They’re just text. The words “Click here” are clickable, but we’ve all known for years that no one should ever use the words “click here” as link text.

There’s your third headache. The complicated instructions are not just complicated but INCORRECT.

The next headache is the worst. It hits the mourning customers as they’ve finally reached what should be the last step in signing up for their digital reminder. Here is what the user sees when they “click here:”

That’s right: it doesn’t open a web form. It doesn’t allow the user to complete a Digital Yahrzeit Reminder request. It downloads a PDF form to your computer. At the bottom of the form are instructions to email the completed form to a specific email address.

Let’s break this down. To complete this form, you must:

  1. Print it out.
  2. Use a pen to hand write the information they’re requesting.
  3. Scan it with a scanner.
  4. Attached the scanned file to an email message and send that message to the funeral home’s email address.

When the funeral home receives these emails, they must:

  1. Open the file.
  2. Manually enter all the data from the form into their database of mourners, including the date of the Yahrzeit, the name of the person who passed away, and the email addresses of all mourners for that deceased person.

The number of places for errors and omissions here are staggering. Typos, lost attachments, people without scanners, people without email, people who fill out the form incorrectly or incompletely…plus the dozens of people who are likely to call with procedural questions at every point along this set of over-complicated instructions.

Assuming this funeral home has a database of mourners and yahrzeits already, an actual digital, online form that saved submissions directly into that database would have streamlined the entire process considerably. Instead, we have something only one step removed from faxing.

The Mess

I can’t imagine the mess this will cause this funeral home. From the poorly designed web site to the poorly executed digital campaign, to the lack of regard for the audience and the history of this organization’s place in the community, this is a perfect example of technology making everything worse. There’s no real way to know the impetus behind making yahrzeit reminders digital, but if it is a cost-saving measure, it may very well come back to bite them in the behind over customer service hours and lost business as people stop seeing their name in the one place they’ve become accustomed to seeing it: in their mailbox every year as a reminder of who helped them bury their beloved family member.

Stop and think before you move an analog process to digital: will this help you or will it help them? If it will only help YOU, you must make it easy and valuable for your customers. If it will help both of you, you must show them how. The business process profiled here did neither. All it did was make it look out-of-touch and selfish. That’s surely not the attitude this business wanted to portray to its loyal customers — especially since they’re already in a dark place whenever they’re dealing with this business.

Just like doctors, your web sites should above all, do no harm. A web site that makes mourning families work harder to do their mourning? That’s extra sad.

Have you had an experience where a web site made things worse for the business? How about one that made working with the business even better? Let us know! Send us a message via email, Facebook or Twitter. We’d love to tell your story!