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Web of Confusion, Part 1

(SIGCHI Bulletin January/February 2001)

UI 2001 Conference, 30 Oct - 1 Nov 2000, Boston

Back in the mid 1990s the World Wide Web showed enormous promise, but quite a few rough edges. I had great hopes that as it progressed, developers would learn from their mistakes and provide sites that were easier to use. In reality the rapid pace of development, coupled with pressure to provide greater and more elaborate functionality, has left usability at a virtual standstill in the wired world. This lack of improvement in allowing real users to get real things done via the web was the theme of Jared Spool's keynote talk at UI2001. I doubt that I was the only one in the room not surprised by his revelations (more of which later).

The conference was a relatively small affair by CHI standards, consisting of eight day-long tutorials over two days, with a "sampler" day sandwiched in between. This meant that you could attend two tutorials in their full form and another four in condensed, 90-minute versions. I thought that this approach was very effective and would certainly like to see similar arrangements at other conferences.

As it turned out, organizing my travel and accommodation via the Web was almost as educational as attending the conference itself. I needed flights, car parking and accommodation. I tried to arrange all three of these via the web - and failed. I am a patient man when it comes to technology, and I have been using the web since NCSA Mosaic was the only browser available. I tried very hard, much harder than the average consumer, to make these arrangements online and could not.

While I do not want to spend too much time on my tale of woe, here is the catalog of web disasters that occurred:

  • The American Airlines web site would only offer me flights from London to Boston via Chicago.
  • My lastminute.com flight reservation had the wrong return date (they did not provide flight details on the final confirmation page).
  • The Marriott hotels reservation site repeatedly discarded all of my address details as invalid (they later explained that punctuation in the city or telephone number fields could cause this).
  • Parking Express gave a very convincing impression of having worked. However, when the printed voucher arrived it was for the wrong airport.

This is a pretty sorry state of affairs and whilst not typical of the average web experience, not unusual either. Jared reports that in usability testing conducted at User Interface Engineering, users only achieve their self-selected goals 42% of the time. A particularly worrying aspect of this figure is that it has not changed significantly since they started collecting data in 1996.

The situation is even worse in UIE's studies of web purchasing, with only 35% of sales succeeding. UIE have found and classified over 250 obstacles to success in this area.

These obstacles raise a fundamental issue concerning the definition of usability. For example, in my catalog of disasters, is it a usability problem that the parking voucher that arrived was for the wrong airport? In a strict sense, probably not. But whatever we decide to call the problems users are facing, we need to decide how to identify and address them. This was the purpose of the tutorials presented at the conference:

  • Scenario building
  • Visual literacy
  • Goal-directed design
  • Information design
  • Inventing interfaces
  • Field study techniques
  • Designing with the mind in mind
  • Screen design and layout

… and the subject of the second part of this article.

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 33, January-Februrary 2001} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/967113.967127

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