usability web

Getting Web Sites Wrong

It’s a constant refrain round these parts, I know, but here’s another example of a web site that has a couple of nasty errors that could have been avoided with a little thought.

The site in question is Knight Frank the estate agents. I was drawn to their site as they are selling a house on my road. The house is a little bigger than ours and I wanted to know what it was selling for. Yes, I’m using the web to feed my middle-class obsession with house prices.

Anyway, the search functionality on the site was easy enough to use and I quickly found the property that I was looking for. So I clicked the link in the search results to see the details.

That’s when I noticed the first problem. When you have a details of objects (in this case houses) on your web site, then it makes a lot of sense to give each object a unique web address so that it’s easy for people to pass details of a given object to their friends. As we’ll see later, Knight Frank’s site does have unique addresses for each property, but they do their best to keep them hidden.

When I was looking at the list of search results, the location bar in my browser said:

And when I clicked through to the property details, it said:

Nothing changed. There was no address that I could have used to pass on to a friend. To my mind, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how the web works.

However, looking at the details of the property, I saw a “send to a friend” link. I realised that if you can send a link to the property to a friend then the email that is sent must contain the unique link that the web site hides from you. I decided to send the details to myself.

And here’s the next problem. The “send to a friend” page asks for your email address, your friends email address and a message to include in the email. The web site then sends an email containing the message and the link from you to your friend.

Can you see the problem?

The problem is that this mail claims to come from you. But it doesn’t really. It really comes from the Knight Frank web server. A common spam technique is to send mail that doesn’t originate from the site that it claims to come from. For this reason, a number of people have implemented a system called SPF. In SPF a domain publishes a list of mail servers that are allowed to send mail for that domain. At the other end of a transaction, when a mail server receives a mail, it can check against these published lists to ensure that the mail comes from a mail server that is allowed to send mail for the domain that it claims to come from. Any mail that doesn’t match these requirements can be discarded as spam. I publish a set of SPF records for and I also check SPF records for any incoming mail and discard any that don’t match.

So we have the situation where the Knight Frank site is trying to send mail that claims to come from, but that server isn’t on the list of servers that send genuine And that means that my mail to myself is rejected by my incoming mail server as spam. Luckily I got a bounce message that contained the original message so I finally managed to work out what the address of the property details is. If the Knight Frank web site had been honest and sent the mail from itself, then the mail would have got through without any problems.

This system probably works for them currently because SPF isn’t really widely implemented. But as spam gets worse then it will become far more common. And less and less Knight Frank web site mail will get through to the intended recipient.

The Knight Frank web site designers probably thought they were being really clever. They probably think that hiding the details of the web site address makes things look simpler. They almost certainly think that people are more likely to read mail that comes from a friend. But I think that in both of these cases they are failing to understand how the internet should work.

If you’re interested, the property details are here. It’s on sale for £795,000 and over the weekend the “for sale” sign changed to an “under offer” sign.

tech usability web

Blogwerx Sentinel

I’m reading Robert Scoble as I often do first think in the morning and he mentions Blogwerx Sentinel which is an application that monitors splogs to see who is copying your blog content without you knowing. It sounded interesting so I signed up.

And a few seconds later I get this email:

Dave Cross,

Thank you for registering with Sentinel.

Please keep the following for your records.

Password: [removed]

You can log in by going to:

Thanks again!

The BlogWerx Team

(The password wasn’t blanked out in the original version).

So that’s strike one. They don’t understand basic password handling.

I reply to this mail pointing out their errors. The mail comes from But my reply bounces back. That address doesn’t exist.

So that’s strike two. They don’t understand basic bulk email rules either.

Oh, and when I logged in, their site used Apache basic authentication. How retro is that?

And none of the useful looking links on their site (info, help, contact us) do anything. I’ve even tried in IE.

They might have a great product, but all this niggling errors don’t sell it well.

Update: Looking at this site more closely, it’s so badly developed that I’m becoming convinced that it’s a scam. It must just be there to collect bloggers email addresses.

Update: A review of the site by someone who has had exactly the same experience as me. And the screenshot has exactly the same data in it as the one I’ve been looking at all day (only the feed address is different). So I’m pretty much convinced that this site isn’t actually doing anything and that Scoble has been scammed.

usability web

Tricking the Customer

I really hate it when companies who have a good product spoil it by trying to trick the customer into spending more money than they really want to. Today’s example is LoveFilm.

Last year I wrote an entry about how I was considering trying out one of these new DVD rental services. They all seemed pretty similar, so in the end I chose LoveFilm largely because they offered a few free tickets for Picture House cinemas along with the standard month’s free trial. They are also the people behind the Guardian’s Sofa Cinema service.

The trial went fine – I watched a number of films that I hadn’t seen before – but eventually I decided that the service wasn’t for me. This was largely because I didn’t really like the way that you get sent two random films from your list. I have a wide taste in films and often the films I was sent weren’t films that I was in the mood to watch.

So anyway, I decided that I wanted cancel the service at the end of the free trial. And that’s when things started to go wrong. You can’t cancel an account on the web site. You need to phone them. That means two things. Firstly, they are hoping that most people just won’t bother making that extra phone call and secondly, the customer service people you speak to will do every thing they can to persuade you not to cancel. And sure enough when I made the call I was subjected to all manner of persuasion in an attempt to get me to change my mind. When I held firm, their parting shot was to try to scare me by saying that if my last DVDs weren’t back by my next payment date then I’d be charged for another month.

But I returned the DVDs in time and assumed that my relationship with LoveFilm was over.

They had different ideas and over the last six months I have had frequent mail from them inviting me to rejoin. Most of these offered another month’s free trial, but over christmas I got an offer of a three months trial. I decided to take them up on that offer.

During the signup process they asked me which rental package I wanted a free trial of. There wasn’t much information about what the various packages meant so I just signed up for the most expensive one (as that’s the best value if they’re all free!) A few days later my first rentals arrived and I remembered that I had planned to investigate the packages in more detail.

I discovered that the expensive package that I had signed up for not only included DVDs, but also computer games. And as I rarely play computer games, there was no point being on that package. So I changed down to a cheaper package that only covered DVDs. I confess that at this point I didn’t really read the page that closely.

A couple of days later I was checking my credit card and discovered that LoveFilm had charged me £12.99. I wrote to customer services to find out why and they told me that by changing my package subscription I had cancelled my free trial. Of course, it says that on the page where you change your package so whilst I’m still in discussion with them, it looks like I won’t have a leg to stand on and that I’ve royally screwed up my free trial.

But doesn’t that sound a bit underhand to you? Who is going to want to move from a free trial to a paid package? Seems to me that the only reason to have that functionality available is to catch people you don’t read the small print (and, yes, I admit that’s my own stupid fault) and to trick them into paying money that they don’t need to pay. I know that the page tells you that by changing your package you’ll be cancelling any free trial, but it’s below the fold. It seems to me that it might be more appropriate to have the message in large, flashing red letters – “Warning: this will cancel your free trial and that’s a bloody stupid thing to do!!”

So, as I said, I’m still in discussions with them. I’m hoping they’ll refund the money and put me back on the free trial. If they don’t then I’ll just have to cancel and make the most of the month’s subscription that I’ve paid for. And then wait for the next free trial offer to come along.

Here’s tip for web site developers. If it makes no sense for a customer to take a particular action then don’t offer it to them. Or, at the very least, give them a confirmation screen that makes it clear how stupid this action is.

Update: I’ve just heard back from them. They still haven’t offered a refund, but they have added another three free months of service to the end of this current payment period. That sounds like a reasonable compromise to me.

Still don’t really understand why a customer would want to switch from a free trial to paid package though.

usability web

Online Shopping

When you are designing a shop, whether online or in the real world, one of the most important design criteria is that you want to make it as easy as possible for your customers to find the products that they want to buy. One of the best counter-examples for this is the London bookshop, Foyles. For many years they insisted on organising their shelves by publisher rather than the more usual arrangement which is by subject matter. This meant that if you wanted, for example, to buy a book on web design then you had to explore each publisher’s section to see if they published any books on that subject. I know many people (myself included) who wouldn’t shop in Foyles until they rearranged the shop a few years ago.

When there are alternative ways to organise your products, the skill is in knowing which arrangement is going to be most useful to your customers. Are most people looking for books goingto be looking for books on a particular subject or books by a particular publisher? In most shops you don’t have the space to have more than one classification on display so you have to pick one.

Online, it’s different. Your inventory is just a database. You are free to put as many different front ends on that database as you want. Amazon can very easily allow customers to browse by subject matter, by publisher, by author or by any number of alternative classifications. It’s just a case of creating a new query against the database.

Not all online shops have worked that out though. I’ve written previously about how I enjoyed buying shoes from Cloggs. I’ve since discovered that I there is another, less helpful, side to the Cloggs site.

On my previous visits, I had been shopping in “publisher” mode. I knew I wanted Dr Martens shoes. On another visit I knew I wanted Levis jeans. And the Cloggs site made those purchases easy. They had a Dr Martens page and a Levis page. I could just choose the exact products that I needed. Recently I went back with a far more vague idea of what I wanted. I wanted to buy some sandals and I didn’t really care who they were made by. I drilled down through the web site to “Guys” (I know!) and “Footwear”. But that’s where it went wrong. I was presented with a list of all of the brands of mens shoes that Cloggs sell. To get more detail I had to visit each brand’s page individually. It took ages. And I still didn’t find what I wanted.

Cloggs have missed an important point about being on the web. Their site is like the (old style) Foyles. Their classification works for some (probably a small number) of their visitors, but not for the majority. And it doesn’t need to be like that. On the web you have the flexibility to present your data in many different ways. You can tailor your web site to any customer’s requirements. Whoever designed the software that powers their site wasn’t thinking about the web. They were apparently still thinking of physical shops where one classification system is the norm.

I don’t mean to pick on Cloggs specifically. I’m sure there are many other online shops that work the same way. Maybe even most online shops work like that. But it’s shortsighted. It doesn’t exploit the power of the web. A virtual shop (and that is what we’re talking about) can be anything that you want it to be. Unlike physical shops, it’s not constrained by the size of the building.

All of which got me thinking. Have any shops tried allowing customers to define the classification of the products? I’m thinking of a site where customers can add tags to products and other customers can search by either shop-defined tags (“men”, “footwear”, “dr martens”, “sandals”) or by customer-defined tags (“what david beckham was wearing last week”). I sounds to me like a powerful way to run an online shop, but I can’t find any evidence of anyone trying it.

Maybe I need to see how hard it is to thrash out a prototype.

tech usability web

Girls with Guitars (and Broken Web Sites)

(This entry is mostly about technical standards on the web – not, as it might seem at first, my dubious musical taste)

I’m a sucker for a pretty girl with a jangly guitar. And we all know that I’m a geek. So I was interested in the idea of Sandi Thom who supposedly[1] got her record deal after webcasting a series of gigs from her Tooting basement. But it was only this week, after seeing adverts for her first single on TV, that I decided to investigate further by visiting her web site.

All I saw when I got there was a flowery border and a message saying that I didn’t have the right version of Flash installed. Now, I have Flash, but it’s version 7 as that’s the most recent version that’s available for Linux. But Sandi’s site required version 8. Well, I say “required” because that’s the version that the Javascript was looking for, but I have no way of knowing whether or not they actually needed version 8 or whether that’s just the default setting on the version checking program they are using.

Without the correct version of Flash the site is useless. They make no attempt to support people without Flash. Not even a contact address. I wasn’t sure if they realised what a disappointing face they were presenting to Linux users so I emailed the webmaster. Only to get a bounce message saying that the domain didn’t have a webmaster address. So I emailed the postmaster pointing out that their mail system is misconfigured. Only to get another bounce message saying that the domain didn’t have a postmaster account either. So I looked up the technical contact for the domain and copied both of my messages to him. Haven’t had a response yet.

It’s great, of course, that the web makes it so easy to publish stuff to the whole world. But I just wish that a few more people would realise that the web is much easier to use when certain simple standards are followed. I assume that the Flash site was build by some web design agency. You’d hope that they would know enough to set up a web site that worked properly. But, of course, that’s too much to ask for. Most people selling themselves as experts on the internet have no idea about the underlying standards and protocols.

Ok. Rant over. I expect I’ll end up buying Sandi’s album from Amazon.

Update: The one part of Sandi’s site that I can reach without Flash is the forum. Which is all a bit scary as most of her fans seen to be illiterate teenage girls.

[1] I say “supposedly” as a story in today’s Guardian throws some doubt on this.

media usability web

Reasons Not To Use Flash

It’s been a while since I posted one of my “basic guide to the internet” articles (sorry, I’ve been a bit busy – new job and all that), but whilst you’re waiting for the next one here’s a good article by Nik about why you shouldn’t implement a web site purely in Flash.

I think it’s his third point that is the most important. Google (and other search engines) can’t index sites that are in Flash. To them (and their users) a Flash site is a black box. It might contain something useful and interesting, but who can say?

Someone once told me that the most important visitors to your site aren’t the humans, but the search engine spiders. Every once in a while, it’s worth looking at your site in a text-only browser like lynx so you can see your site how they see it.

media usability web

Paying For Content

I wanted to point out an interesting article about how Google are having trouble recruiting staff for their new London office – but the article is in the Independent and because it’s a few days old you now have to pay to read it. So here’s the text that I got yesterday before the paywall dropped into place.

Google, the US search engine giant, is failing to attract enough talent to work in its fledgling London office.

Google is one of the world’s best-known brands, with a market value of $112bn (£64bn), and boasts a strong reputation as an employer. Perks include staff being allowed to dedicate time to personal projects, known as the Twenty Per Cent Time Project, as well as free food and drink.

However, the group has so far failed to hire enough developers for its UK office. Although Google already has sales staff in London, employing engineers in the UK is a more recent development, and it began looking to recruit employees only four months ago.

“Our growth is exceptional in the current market conditions, so in order to stay abreast of new innovations and indeed the competition, we need to continuously seek the best talent, not only in the UK but across the world,” Rian Liebenberg, information systems director of Europe, said.

Mr Liebenberg believes the main problem holding back recruitment is that potential candidates fear they will eventually have to relocate to California, where Google’s head office is, which he insists is not the case. He also sites[sic] ignorance about what Google does, with some people believing it only offers a search engine service.

The vast majority of news stories that I link to here are from the BBC or the Guardian. That’s, of course, partly because those organisations have the same pinko deviant view of the world as I do, but the major reason is because they understand the importance of permanence on the web. I know that links I use to their stories will still work long into the future.

I’m sure that the Independent are happy that the pay-for-content business model is working for them. But it means that people discussing the news won’t be linking to their versions of the stories. And that means that less people are being directed to their site. Which can’t be a good idea in the long run, can it?

media usability web

First Direct Web Site

Here’s a good example of how not to design a user interface.

Yesterday I realised that I needed to pay my tax bill. My accountants had filed the return, it was just up to me to actually stump up the money. The deadline for payment is January 31st so it was a bit late to send the payment in by post, but I noticed that the payment slip included instructions for making an electronic transfer. It told me the sort code and the account number that I needed and told me which of the numbers on the slip I should use as the payment reference. Armed with this information I opened up the First Direct web site and found the section for making a one-off payment.

There are two routes through this section of the site. If you have all of the details that you need you can enter them directly but there’s also another route where First Direct have gathered a number (hundreds, it seems) of common payment details so that you don’t need to fill in all the numbers. That sounded like the easiest route, so I went that way. I soon found myself looking at a long list of potential payees. The problem was that their names were a bit cryptic so I wasn’t sure which one I needed. There were two that seemed to be for paying personal tax bills which were called “InlandRevCumbSelfAssessment” and “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment”. Now Shipley is a town in Yorkshire and my payslip said that my payment should be sent to Bradford which is also in Yorkshire and “Cumb” is short for Cumbernauld which is in Scotland. So I thought I knew which one to choose but I wasn’t 100% sure. And when you’re paying taxes, it’s best to be 100% sure that you’re paying the right people.

I selected the “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” in the hope that the next screen would confirm the sort code and account number that were associated with this payee. But in the interest of simplification, those potentially confusing details had been helpfully left off the screen.

At that point I decided that I would be happier taking the alternative route and typing all of the required details myself. So I went back to the first page and started again. This looked better. I was given a screen that asked for all the details that I had. I filled in the details and pressed the “proceed” button. I was asked to check and confirm the details which I did. And then on the next screen it went wrong. I was told that First Direct already had those details in their system and that therefore I had to use that option and couldn’t choose to type in the details myself. Of course there wasn’t any indication of which of the list of names I should choose or (which would have been better) a link to a page that was pre-filled with those details. No, I just had to go back to my original guessing game. I chose “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” and hoped that it was correct.

This morning, whilst running through the process again to ensure that this description was accurate, I discovered that “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” has been added to my list of previously used payees. And in the list it includes the sort code and account number. So I can confirm that my tax has been paid to the right place. Which is nice, but it was all a bit of a struggle.

Let’s review the problems:

  • The list of known payees is badly organised. The symbolic names that they have been given aren’t very clear.
  • When a known payee is selected, the next screen should contain the sort code and account number for the payee, so that a user can confirm that the correct selection has been made.
  • When a user chooses to enter the details, then why not let them do that? What is the point of saying that you must use the list of known payees for a payee that is on the list.
  • If you are going to insist on a user using the list of known payees, then you can at least make their life easier by telling them which of the known payees you are talking about.

I’ve always been a fan of First Direct. I’ve been with them ever since they started up and they’ve rarely done anything that has annoyed me. Even their internet banking service generally seems a lot better than most others I haveused. But in this case it seems that their interface designers were on holiday and this part of the site was designed by someone who had never given any thought to how someone might actually want to use it.

It should be illegal to design web site interfaces if you haven’t read Don’t Make Me Think (damn, I’ve just seen there’s a second edition out…)

tech television usability web

More is Less

Until recently I often used a website called TV Tome. This was the best place to go for information about TV programmes. It contained episode guides, cast lists and various other bits of trivia about all of your favourite programmes. Nice simple interface. A few ads, but nothing too intrusive.

It’s not there now tho’. It has reinvented itself as I think that all of the content is still there, but I can’t be sure because the new site is almost unusable. It’s far more graphics intensive than the old site and it makes heavy use of flash and/or Java applets. The site is horribly slow and there is too much going on all over the page.

I know people need to make money from their web sites and I suppose that they are now able to charge advertisers more. But when the needs of the advertisers takes precedence over the needs of the users then a web site is in deep trouble.

Or maybe it was just change for the sake of it. In which case it was pointless.

I hope that someone builds a new, simpler TV site. Or perhaps there’s another already out there. Currently I’m still struggling along with, but I won’t be able to take it much longer.

Update: Ok. From the comments I’m getting, I see that the TV IV Wiki is the place to go now.

tech usability web

Popups Are Bad

I’m getting involved in a debate on the uk-netmarketing email list on the value (or otherwise) of web page popups. Another of the people in the discussion works for Eyeconomy who I’ve mentioned before.

Like all people I’ve discussed it with, I hate unrequested popups on web pages. When one appears I close it down immediately without reading it. Proponents of popups point to data proving how much more effective they are than plain banner ads. I say that this just proves that it’s impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the average web user :)

So we have a situation where most web surfers still see popups as an unavoidable annoyance on the web. About 90% of surfers still use Internet Explorer and I suspect it’s a very small percentage of those who have installed any kind of popup blocker. These are the people who are still providing data which encourages the use of popups.

But there is another (smaller) group of people. These are the people who have installed a decent browser that has a built-in popup blocker. Or have installed popup blocking extensions for their browser. These people know that they don’t like popups and have taken the decision to do something about them.

This action annoys the people who use popups. Popup blocking is, they think, attacking their livelihood. Less people are seeing their popups and therefore they are making less money. So they devote time and energy to writing “super-popups” that get past the popup blockers. And in many cases they succeed.

But I think that they are missing a fundamental point. The people with popup blockers installed have, as I said above, taken the conscious decision that they don’t want to see popups. Before installing a popup blocker they saw popups as an annoyance. Now, if they see popups they are very likely to get far more pissed off as someone has overidden their choice. These people didn’t like popups before (that’s why they installed popup blocking software). They were never going to click one the adverts. Why waste time and energy developing these super-popups when they are only going to further annoy people who already disliked popups?

But I don’t think that this kind of logic has any chance of working with these marketeers. I think that our only hope is to convince their clients that using super-popups is doing nothing but annoying people. I’ve now decided that every time I come across site that serves me super-popups through my popup blocker, I’ll email the webmaster explaining what has happened and telling them that I won’t be using their site again. I’d encourage you to do the same. Maybe if enough of us tell them then the message will start to get through.