Converting a Dinosaur to the 21st Century

I have been recently taking a much more active interest in user interface usability. In my role as a software contractor, I have been working on websites with 100,000s of users. I have been party to many deeply involved discussions as to the impact of splitting a page into two, or the opposite, combining two pages into one. There are many pro’s and con’s of both and getting a commercial website that doesn’t experience excessive drop-off is an art which I have slowly come to appreciate. There have been studies by Google showing that even a half second additional load time can decrease the number of people staying on the site by a marked percentage.
The other influence has been watching my father come to terms with the 21st century. There isn’t really much choice about whether of not you are going to embrace the world of the internet any longer. Adverts no longer list a phone number, they show web addresses. Big companies don’t want to talk to you, they want you to read FAQs, send emailed enquires, etc.. My father dived in with both feet - on-line banking, national lottery, email, Facebook, the lot.
Watching his struggles has made me realise that the creators of such websites don’t give the slightest consideration for relatively inexperienced users. And the help desks assume knowledge that typical people simply don’t have - have you tried this, have you done that? Loads of jargon ridden gobbledygook - I understand what is being asked, but I think “How the hell is my father supposed to understand that?”
So, lets start with the
National Lottery web site. What an user interface disaster. My dad simply wanted to pop in his regular numbers and wait for the winnings to roll in.
So, he has to create an account, and there are really complicated password complexity rules, and he needs a unique username. So, he takes about a dozen attempts to get a combination it accepts, neither of which is something he really wanted, so not surprisingly he forgot what it accepted within about two seconds - which of the myriad combinations was it again? In my opinion, the email address could have been the username, reducing the complexity by one step, and the password rules could have been a tad less intense.
Once you are in, it is not at all obvious how to put in your numbers - choices abound, menus down the left, menus across the top, and choices in the middle of the page. Eventually, dad stumbled on the direct debit configuration page, and puts in his details, then he goes to put in his numbers and he is prompted for a credit/debit card. Oh, and what is his password again, oh bugger, we forgot that, and we need to reset our account, and we have yet another password.
So, now dad is sat waiting for his winnings to roll in. He has emails galore. Direct debit this, direct debit that. A couple of weeks later, he goes to check whether he has won anything and finds that none of his numbers had been placed. One of those multitude of emails was to tell him his direct debit had been cancelled, but why? No-one knows. He has set it up again, and all seems ok now. But, why are these systems so complicated?
Now, my dad is a keen
Lexulous player, and the version he got addicted to is embedded inside Facebook. So, he is also a Facebook user. He hates Facebook. He gets notification emails when people send him messages, which he can’t reply to. It makes total sense to reply to a message, but it doesn’t work (BTW, it works correctly on LinkedIn). The little notification counter in the bottom right of the screen always reads 99, no matter what he does because every time someone makes a move on Lexulous, every time someone messages him during a game, every time someone sends him a Facebook message, every time someone invites him to join some stupid game he’s not interested in the counter goes up, which is dozens and dozens of times per day. So, playing a nice relaxing game of Lexulous results in never ending stress.
Throwing all this shit in his face constantly isn’t going to make him sign up, join in, buy or anything else, but it is going to stop him from playing, one day. (I know there are ways and means of reducing the noise, but HOW IS HE GOING TO FIND OUT?). A simple notice on each annoying message saying “click here to never see one of these again” would help.
If you’re one of dad’s friends on Facebook, do him a favour, don’t invite him to play Farmville, Social questions, or whatever spam system that is stealing all your social network information this week because he isn’t interested, honest. (But do send him personal messages, we’ve got that bit sussed now).
Now, the banks get quite a thumbs up, mostly. Even the Spanish one has an English version of the site that is mostly understandable. But, quite regularly the HSBC online bank just refuses to let him log in. When he rings the help desk they say it’s because he has the web site in his “Favourites” (Hey, help desk people, not everyone has Internet Explorer, so don’t confuse my dad by mentioning something that isn’t even on his machine). Now, as a web developer I struggle to see how having a bookmark can break the authentication system, but if I found a way, I would make sure I fixed it so my site didn’t behave that way. I mean, why should someone have to always type in the web address? (Oh, and I checked, the bookmark was to the login page, not somewhere deep in the site). Now, that is crap.
My dad has done amazingly well to start using computers in his 67th year, and being able to do email, banking, play games, book flights, and loads of wonderful things, but I suspect he hates it, and all because there are so many bloody lazy developers. If you want to find out how crap your website is, drop me a line and we’ll arrange for my dad to do some web usability consultancy for you.
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