Free as in chicken, an experiment in terrible usability

So hey this is barely library related. I was reading library_mofo and saw someone complaining about Oprah. Yes Oprah the lady who seemed to have single-handedly revived reading in some circles. I didn’t understand the problem. Apparently somehow Oprah was telling people to go get a coupon for free chicken at KFC. This was a problem at libraries for some reason. I investigated further.

Turns out, you go Oprah’s site and then to this page and have one day (now only a few hours, maybe not even okay anymore depending when you read this) to print up to four coupons to get a free meal. Actually now that I go there I get message that “Our partner, Coupons, Inc. is experiencing an exceptionally high volume of traffic to the site right now. Please check back soon to get your coupon. Sorry for any inconvenience.” Color me surprised.

In a digital age teeming with innovative solutions, it’s remarkable how something as simple as a coupon can become a gateway to new experiences. Recently, a friend mentioned their use of a unique service called Casinos Not On Gamstop, and it struck me how parallel it was to the coupon system I was grappling with. Just like needing to download specific software to access these online deals, players seeking these casinos must navigate beyond standard regulatory frameworks. It’s an intricate dance of technology and access—whether it’s printing a discount for a meal or searching for a gaming platform not restricted by Gamstop. This interplay between user autonomy and the seamless functionality of digital tools continues to redefine the boundaries of our online interactions.

So, people without printers head to the public library to get a coupon for a free meal. You can use a printer at the public library, yay for the library! They can’t do this for any number of reasons up to and including

  • They can’t download the application to a library computer because of library policy
  • They can’t download the program to the computer because the website is being flakey
  • Coupons Inc is down
  • They manage to download the application and get to the “print coupon” link only to wait forever and have no idea if their coupon is printing or not
  • The “you are limited to four downloads of this coupon” restraint is somehow per computer which means the first four people are lucky, the rest not so much

Yes that’s right, it’s the coupon so popular and so buggy they had to create a FAQ for it. Do people look at this fiasco the way I do, as an well-meaning but ill-conceived program that uses a lot of stupid middleware to prevent fraud that mostly managed to tank itself due to overpopularity and complicated implementation? No, they think the library isn’t the place to go for printing. Or that librarians can’t solve technical problems as easy as printing a coupon from a website, so the next time they have a coupon to print, they’ll go elsewhere. Or that computers are hard.

This system encourages cheating. It complicates what should be a fairly straightforward computer activity for no particularly good reason. What do you suppose happens if you show up at KFC with a photocopied coupon? What happens when you print more than four coupons? Thanks for reminding me that “Coupon fraud is punishable by law.” If I ever get this website to load again, I’m printing 100 coupons and you can take me to jail. The nearest KFC to here is 21 miles anyhow. Boy am I glad I’m not working at the library today.

note: If you did download the coupon printing software, please make sure to uninstall it (read more).
second note: here are all 4789 comments on the Oprah site about this promotion.
final note: if you think I am overstating the case, check the twittermachine for the KFC+library keywords and weep.

32 thoughts on “Free as in chicken, an experiment in terrible usability

  1. I also had problems getting the coupon to open or download on firefox. I didn’t care enough about it to try in safari or go to a winbox.

  2. Dunno … my computer is blocked (by my employer — don’t worry, lunch break) from downloading most things, but I had no problem printing the coupon… there was no “downloads” dialog or anything … perhaps they’d changed it by then or since then? No wait times, either.

  3. Campus IT asked people to not install the thingummy because it somehow won’t work with the Explorer we have installed in offices and labs. I have IE7, not going to play to their stupidity in FF or Chrome. Could have been brilliant marketing, but they turned it into fail.

  4. All the popular coupon websites use some variant of that downloader; patrons at my public library are coming in all the time because they hear about these sweet websites and run right into the brick wall. It’s frustrating for them and for reference staff.

  5. My Library IT guru said that the website you go to installs spyware along with the coupon thingummy (as sroy put it). We were told today that under no circumstances are we to even think about going to the website…

  6. The firefox problem was probably not unique to you. I’ve run into other sites that do various sort of systems checks and work fine in firefox on windows, but assume that if you’re on a Mac, then you MUST be using safari, regardless of what your browser says, and sends you the safari version of everything. Which, of course, breaks on firefox.

  7. I like chicken, so I gave it a try. For the first couple hours (refreshing periodically), I just kept getting the “sorry, too busy” error screen. Eventually I was prompted to install their printer software, which I did. But when I tried to print the coupons, it just spun and spun. I tried hitting it again, and got the “you already printed your coupons” error.

    Fine – I actually didn’t expect it to work. But that’s me, and speaks to your point about expectations: if this didn’t work for a patron, it’s the library’s fault, not Oprah’s.

    Also, I was surprised at how slick-looking the “too busy” error page was – it was as if they were planning on lots of problems. If you expect so much traffic that you think your site will crash, how about spending time bumping up the available bandwidth instead of developing a pretty “you’re out of luck because we suck” page.

    But the bottom line is that I’m not going to try their new chicken – and isn’t getting me in the door the point? Their technology failed in that goal.

  8. Every time a client asks us to do a coupon for them we tell them that the best thing to do is just expect some people to print a lot of them and deal with the end results.

    Sounds like Yum Brands listened to their lawyers instead of people with an understanding of the medium.

  9. I’m an IT Librarian at my library. I just heard about people requesting this from a colleague ten minutes ago. Our public PCs are heavily locked down here, so it’s not possible to install 3rd party software. Changes need to be carefully planned and executed in off-hours. Not what our public nor our public service staff want to hear. I’m used to this kind of thing. There’s always something people want to download and install.

  10. Just for grins, I clicked the link from the Linux box. I got an unsupported browser screen which presumably means that it picked up my browser info and saw my O/S detail since all Firefox versions here are 3.0.10 only the operating systems vary.

    It doesn’t speak Linux. That’s fine for me because I don’t speak fast food even when it is free or seemingly free since I got the very real impression it was wanting to install something and gather personal data.

    My guess it that the real purpose behind the barcode and no photo copies isn’t so much about discouraging cheating but connecting barcode to download and building a database for email marketing and showing the effectiveness of the campaign.

    So I wouldn’t be shocked if libraries where coupons were printed got a second round of PITA when the IT group has to clean up and clear out the marketing trail that comes with the coupon.

  11. Holy crap, there are 5000 comments on oprah’s faq, most of which appear to be saying “it didn’t work”. The scale of that response not only shows just how big of a technical fiasco this was, but also reminds us that Oprah has powers we cannot even imagine.

  12. AH! I’m so glad you wrote this- I had this issue all day today and was astonished that the coupon would require users to download something…

    Now that I know Oprah was behind the flurry of people coming into the library JUST to print out this coupon, it all makes more sense. I thought maybe people were just really jonesing for some chicken.

  13. In the olden days (the really, really olden days), people just tied up the reference telephones to get answers to radio contests. We would catch on after the third or fourth person the same trivia question. Never offered to split the prize either.

  14. You can enable the coupon to be printed another four times by deleting its keys in the registry; there was a DMCA court case about this. is a good overview of the case.

    (Also, the barcodes are identical on all copies of the same coupon, and the software isn’t spyware (it just manipulates these registry keys to restrict how many times you can print the coupon), so you can take the tinfoil hats off.)

  15. Thanks for the heads up. Just had a patron asking about this here at my community college library. Happily I was pre-informed by your blog post. Thanks, Jessamyn!

  16. I work for a large library system. We have 28 branches with 15 or more Internet computers at each branch. The limit of four coupons was for each IP address. We maxed out long before closing time. It was a comedy of errors.

  17. Sorry but, why is this newsworthy? Frontline lirarians deal with technological issues like this EVERY DAY. Most of my time at the Reference Desk is spent trying to figure out how to help people navigate through different types of software to do what they need to do. We have been doing our best to provide excellent customer service while trying to explain to our Tech departments what’s going on. Maybe the tech people need to spend a little more time working with real customers so they get a better understanding of the conditions we operate under each day.

  18. And here is the kick in the teeth P.S.: talking to my customers who pulled their hair out yesterday to finally get coupons at one minute after closing, they told me they went to two KFC’s who had signs posted, “No More Coupons accepted today.” They drove into another city, found one still taking coupons, waited in line over an hour…and did not get the full meal advertised in said coupon — only the chicken and one side.

    This was an irresponsible and immoral campaign.

    Don’t know where you are but I am in South Florida. My typical customer now is unemployed and on food stamps. This coupon meant FOOD to them and to go through this fiasco — heartless and thoughtless.

  19. I’d love to sit on a design meeting for one of these promotions. I bet it goes something like this:

    Exec: Let’s give away free stuff!

    Accountant: Ye–es… But not *too* *much* free stuff.

    Exec: Right, right. Not too much. How much is too much?

    Lawyer: Well, everybody who meets with the spirit of the promotion is acceptable, and those trying to game the system fall into the too much category.

    Exec: Okay…

    Lawyer: Just tell the engineers to ensure that each coupon has a unique barcode so we can track the usage of each coupon and limit it to a reasonable size. Say a family of four.

    Accountant (through probably not): Any chance the cost of over-engineering this will be more expensive than the occasional extra piece of chicken?

    Exec: What’s the alternative? Give store managers some kind discretion or authority to refuse people who seem to be gaming the system? I think not!

  20. OMG — this sucked. And tell me how you can see the difference between a printed black and white coupon and a photocopy of a black and white coupon? My staff said “Well, maybe each of those barcodes are different on the coupon.” And I said, “What, the one that says 001234567891234? I think not.” Comparison of previously printed coupons proved me right. ;)

  21. My aunt sent me the URL & I downloaded with ease the required add-on. I then printed ONE coupon which I plan to use tomorrow. We don’t have KFC in this rural Alaskan town, but I happen to be making the three hour drive to Anchorage tomorrow (Friday) where I hope to save $4 by getting this meal free. Woorks for me! And even if it hadn’t… is this really something we should be getting angry about?

  22. By the way Keri, the coupon I printed is not just black & white. The KFC logo has the trademark red bucket.

  23. Its incredibly bad planning on many many levels; and it is incredibly foolish for any chain, frankly, to be advertising something like that on Oprah because it is pretty much guaranteed to cause a run on most stores that they simply can not sustain. (I mean, most coupons like this have a note that states “whiles supplies last” or “at participating locations only” or some other disclaimer, but most customers don’t note that or care, and it their anger falls on the poor employees.)

    And libraries, in these times, don’t have the time, staff or resources, to devote to make sure everyone who wants one can get a coupon. They are too busy dealing with all the other issues and problems that hit their desks every day too. Its a nightmare.

  24. Chris, it’s newsworthy because it’s high profile and it adversely affected a lot of libraries in a way that might say “hello, teaching moment!” to a bunch of people. I’m not surprised that it was ill thought out and not surprised that librarians reacted but I am a little surprised that this is one of the first real big one-day-only things like this that highlighted a usability lesson that many people can understand.

  25. It seems to me that KFC might be (or should be) interested in hearing all of the problems this caused so that the next time they run a promotion like this, they don’t repeat the same mistakes.

    In that spirit, taken from :

    Please email with any problems concerning your KFC coupon.

    I suppose if you were particularly disgruntled, you could call 1-800-CALL-KFC. Just remember that the poor customer service person at the end of the line didn’t plan the escapade.

  26. I’m pleased to say that nothing like this exists within the UK, but then again I’m a vegetarian.

    However: – While such promotions might bring people in to public libraries, it might cause some other problems for those of us who work within them.

    From my experiance it is not the PCs which cause most problems, but the printers.

    The issue of having to show people how to use PCs is more to do with low staffing levels than anything else.

  27. free greasy chicken is usually a good thing, i just hesitate to stand in line for an hour to save five bucks

  28. we ran into the same problem that everyone else had–the website basically stopped working after noon that fateful day. one woman came in at 10am and printed off 14 coupons (or at least hit the “print” button 14 times). that was it for our computers. nobody else who tried got one. i was VERY annoyed that we had to install some kind of printing software. one lady blamed our staff and even suggested to me in a phone call afterward that we either turned off the printer or stole her coupons. thanks, oprah. thanks, KFC.

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