Amount ≠ Quantity: A Cautionary Tale

The other day my fitness coach went online to pay a $250 deposit on her daughter's high school trip. She found the website and the correct trip, clicked the link to pay $250, and then faced a cell marked Amount. In a hurry, she typed 250, the amount of her payment, without thinking much about it.

Only when she finalized the transaction by clicking Pay did the total appear. My coach's credit card was charged $62,500. Yes, $62,500! And her credit card company immediately approved the charge. 

What went wrong? When the coach saw Amount, even though she thought the blank was redundant, she typed 250. After all, that was the amount she needed to pay. But as a result, she paid $250 an extraordinary 250 times. 

The word amount led the customer-coach in the wrong direction. Quantity would have helped her understand what the blank needed. How many (what quantity of) payments in the amount of $250 did she want to make? Just one.

Amount and quantity may be interchangeable in some references to money, for example: "The amount [quantity] of money we need to invest has increased." 

However, I follow The Chicago Manual of Style's guidance on the word amount: "Amount is used with mass [not countable] nouns: a decrease in the amount of pollution; a small amount of money" (like the amount of her payment). 

Following that advice, the website would not have used amount for the countable payments but rather quantity or number. It would not have caused my coach the hassle of canceling the $62,500 charge. 

Have unexpected words on websites cost you time or money? Please share your story. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for pointing out this outrageous example—hopefully this post gets shared with developers tasked with building forms.

    As a designer, I would have flagged this kind of error. There are many good examples and best practices to follow. I ask writers to weigh in on form labels and response screens so they can contribute to and learn about how to make it easy. (Instead of hard and confusing.)

    Great real-life example.

  2. Hi Barb,

    I appreciate your best practices as a designer. You would NEVER have let this language get past you.

    The bank card company is also at fault. My coach thought she had a limit of about $20,000 and assumed the charge would never go through. Surprise!

    Lynn

  3. A website normally shows you the total charge when asking you to press Pay. The $62,500 should have been in plain view. But somes sites show the charge, then take you to a page for the entry of your credit card details and show the Pay button there. This is asking for trouble. I imagine that an industry association has developed standards for user interfaces for online payments.

  4. Thanks for your good point, George. My coach stressed when she told the story that after she had typed “250” the total did not appear until she clicked Pay.

    As a word person, I focused on the word “amount”–probably to explain how the coach could possibly have gotten into this trouble. You and Barb have pointed out the problem in the site design, which is the really the main issue, isn’t it? Whether the word was “amount,” “number,” or “quantity,” she should have been able to review her purchase before paying.

    Lynn

  5. My question — as a content strategist by profession — is, what purpose does the field even serve? Asking “how many” of a payment required in full that the user wants to pay is a ludricrous superfluity that had no benefit to the outcome. In fact, it had a very real detriment that created more work for everyone involved. It’s not a design or language flaw. To me it’s a UX bungle.

  6. Kristen, you are right. It is a UX bungle.

    I do think a “how many” field makes sense in some form though. Some parents may have two children going on the trip. A way for them to pay for two should be available. How would you allow for that possibility?

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynn

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