Monday, January 09, 2006

Websites are getting worse

Time was when the software was just in your PC. Now it is everywhere - and I'm not even talking about the embedded stuff that you don't see - like the engine control system in modern cars. We see software everywhere - well not quite everywhere I believe there are many more opportunities to make it omnipresent.

We have lived with bad software interface design in video recorders and microwave ovens for years but as more or more companies add web sales channels we are increasingly confronted with bad web interface design.

Often these systems are commissioned and built for companies with no understanding of software development let alone interaction design. Worse still, it seems that many of these systems are built by companies who have little understanding of software development or interaction design.

The fact that you can do it isn’t enough, you need to be able to do it easily.

For example, late last year we decided to go skiing for New Year. When it comes to holidays I am a late booker - the idea of booking two months in advance - let alone six - is foreign to me.

Our first thoughts were for a package holiday, going to the website of any holiday company my first question was: what is available? But on those sites before you can ask what is available you have to specify country, resort, type of accommodation and dates.

Dates are a stupid idea for a package holiday because there are only one or two days during the week when you can start your holiday so why let you choose from everyday of the week?

These sites are just not well designed - a problem any reader of Alan Cooper (The Inmates Are Running the Asylum) would recognise. In fact I don't think these sites have been designed at all. Nor do I believe that the software is owned by any product manager type person.

Nor do these sites make it easy to tell the owners about the problems you encounter, contact details are hidden away, telephone numbers lead to automated systems and when you do speak to a person they know nothing about the web site or who to pass comments onto.

The real problem is for the companies that own these sites: how many customers will abandon the purchase because of a poor site? How many customers will think the product they want is not available? And how many customers would be prepared to compromise and book if only the site would give them the option? Of course some sites go to the other extreme and give you too many options none of which is quite what you want.

Some of these companies will be betting their future on the web sales. No wonder package holiday companies are slowly dying, people want to book online but the website getting away.

Its not just holiday companies: the international telephone provider we use has one of the worst sites ever, you need a password (you can’t change it so I always forget it), and a PIN number (which I always forget too), the menus aren’t intuitive... I could go on. Actually I’m giving up on it won’t let me put a new credit card number in.

These sites exist in every where. The facts are simple: If your site is hard to use you will loose customers.

Yet in all this chaos there lies opportunity: an opportunity for some company to do it right and steal the market from the rest. And once you've got the site right then you can start to add features online which would not otherwise be possible - need a taxi to the airport for your flight? - book it at the same time as your holiday.

The world is plagued by bad websites and I see the problem getting worse before it gets better. Eventually a few category killers will emerge - like Amazon, Expedia and travel losses it who can do it right.

Maybe a good start would be a few more interaction designers and product managers on the case.