Incompetence, inertia, or dark UX at Havasupai?

It took me 2 hours of clicking and refreshing to book a camping permit at Havasupai, also known as Havasu Falls, for my partner and a friend (I was out as soon as I heard the words “10-mile hike”). Permits usually sell out for the following year on the day they become available. It’s a bit like Black Friday for hardcore nature lovers.

Naturally, this puts quite the demand on the servers for the reservation system. But whoever set up the website did not seem to prepare for that demand in the least. I lost count of the number of times I attempted to make a reservation before finally succeeding. At least I logged in before the reservations became available. If I hadn’t done that, I probably would have waited a while even to get into the system, if the Twitter conversations were anything to go by.

Reservations go live. I refresh my screen. I’m asked to select the number of people traveling. The method isn’t ideal, but at least I’m making progress. I select the number, but when I click to continue, I’m told that a token is necessary. I refresh my screen, which starts the process all over again. Does it remember my selection? Haha, no, of course not. I enter the number again, and am eventually taken to a calendar.

I could easily write an entire post about the calendar – don’t worry, I’m not going to. You have to click through one month at a time, and the page reloads with every click. Page reloads are basically like Russian roulette – every one increases the chances I’ll be kicked back to a random previous stage in the process, or possibly even a holding page informing me that the site is experiencing high traffic (yeah, no kidding) and to wait until the Loading…Please Wait button turns into a Continue button.

Spoiler alert: the Continue button is a lie. Nothing happens when you click it.

OK, fine, apparently I’m going to refresh my way to making these reservations. I almost got to a payment screen about 45 minutes in only to – wait for it – get kicked back to the holding screen. It wasn’t even consistent where I would land after emerging from this purgatory. Sometimes it would take me back to the beginning, other times, to the calendar. Complaining about the process on Twitter is my only consolation.

Fortunately, this process has a happy ending – we got our reservations for a date we wanted. It helped that we were trying to avoid peak tourist season. But like that final fake-out in a horror movie, there was one more twist – they charged my partner’s credit card twice. I found out later that this happened to a lot of people, and I wish I could say I was surprised.

So was this just poor planning, or could other motives be in play?

What is dark UX and why do I suspect it?

For those unfamiliar with the term “dark UX,” it’s the intentional misuse of usability patterns to trick users into doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, like adding items to their cart that they don’t want or signing up for a flood of marketing emails.

The camping permits discussed in this post are given out by the Havasupai Tribe, since they own the land. It isn’t like public land in other parts of the US where anybody can set up private tours. You go agreeing to play by the Havasupai people’s rules, or you don’t go.

A decade ago, Havasupai didn’t have anywhere near the tourist volume it has today. However, with the proliferation of social media, more people have learned about how beautiful the area is and want to see it for themselves. But visiting tourists don’t just happen in the abstract. They take a toll on the environment, the local infrastructure, and sometimes each other. So I’m not saying the Havasupai people intentionally made their site hard to use, but I would understand if they did.

The case for incompetence or inertia

If you’ve ever worked in technology, you know that all technological solutions are compromises to varying degrees. There’s rarely a solution that maximizes what everybody wants.

It’s no surprise that demand rises and falls seasonally for travel to just about anywhere. Most seasonal businesses hire extra help in busier times, but what do you do when that spike is all in one day and you live in relative isolation?

There are ways to pay for server capacity that scales up and down with demand, but I would understand if the people who maintain the site just couldn’t be bothered. Since tour groups were prohibited from buying large groups of tickets this year, it probably doesn’t matter to the Havasupai people who gets the camping permits and who doesn’t. Maybe the only thing that matters is that somebody pays for those camping permits.

Conclusion – I’m not even mad

Here’s the thing – even if they did intentionally make their reservation site difficult to frustrate users into giving up, that’s their right. We (especially white US citizens) tend to assume that every place has to be accessible to us, and that’s not the case. The Havasupai people can sell a million camping permits or none at all if they choose. We don’t have an automatic right to enjoy something on someone else’s land just because we find it beautiful.

When a host allows guests, that almost always involves extra effort on the host’s part. In this situation, guests require sleeping space and sometimes food and transportation. Even the physical space has to be managed to avoid too many people being in it at the same time. Unlike the website, I’d be willing to bet that the people overseeing the permit process have a pretty good idea of how many people the area can handle at any given time. Getting that estimate wrong can have negative personal and environmental consequences, unlike a frustrating website. While it might seem that nothing is happening on the other end, there’s a lot of invisible labor that goes into a successful hosting experience, even a somewhat minimalist one.

The most disappointing thing about the whole endeavor wasn’t the booking process itself. Some of the rhetoric on Twitter got really nasty and racist toward the tribe. I understand the frustration with the process, but it’s important to remember that even if you do get the chance to visit, you do so at the pleasure of the Havasupai people. Their house, their rules. Be a good guest.

Photo of Mooney Falls by Logan Lambert on Unsplash

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