The user is your friend…surely!?

Recently I’ve been encountering an increasing number of usability issues when visiting websites and accessing services and I feel it’s time to put a stop to these confusing and hard to use systems. When I visit a website I want to be able to get to the information quickly and easily but it never seems to be that easy, what I’m continually noticing is a trend of big companies with complex phone systems just trasferring that logic to their online offerings.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a developer and often users are the enemy, they do things you don’t expect and end up with some mind boggling issues but I feel that is a good thing. What I’m talking about is the obscuring of information through complexity. I believe that simple is best and there has to be a better way!

Case Study One

Take the following example: I needed to cancel my home contents insurance policy due to a house move. This could have been a simple web form for me to send an enquiry and receive a confirmation call back however what I faced was this:

Claims Process

I continued to phone the correct number only to discover that they wanted me to key in only the numbers on my policy, when your policy number looks like the following ‘C12FQSK3D9D04B’ it becomes over complicated. What’s more, try doing that on a phone that goes dark every time you put it up to your ear and you have a serious usability problem. I think there would be a much more streamlined way of doing this if you could request a call back or resolve this online.

Case Study Two

This one really annoyed me as the user as I was doing something I didn’t really want to do anyway, paying council tax. (It should be noted at this point that I actually have previous experience in developing council websites).

Upon entering the home page there is no mention of council tax apart from a small quick link half way down on the right which isn’t ideal as most website users ignore that area of the screen, so I clicked services. This page is just a series of links, but I found and clicked ‘pay your council tax’, where did this go you ask? Well to a page that describes paying your council tax! The link for paying is half way down contained in a block of text.
Text Block

This is shown again further down :
Block Two

At this point I’ve already clicked twice and I just want a big shiny button that says pay online but I as a user am expected to read six lines of text to work out what the little link with an exclamation mark actually does. My favourite part of this is that the second link takes you to another page describing online payments!

Following the second link through brings you to a page of links with this :

Important

clicking this FINALLY takes me to the payments page. I’ve now clicked four times, had to scroll down twice, read an essay and lose the will to live all to find a single payment form.

Going the other route takes you to a third party system where you have to tediously navigate through and sign up etc to pay.

The point of all this is that websites and online systems need to really focus their design around the user and the activities that will be carried out on the site. The precursor to any website design and development work should be consultation on who will use the site and what their journey will be. Ultimately, we want every process to be simple and painless with as little room for error as possible. I’ve been involved in a number of projects where the design and development were created from a perspective of ‘this is what we want to show’ as opposed to ‘this is what the user will be looking for’ and I think we are seeing a shift in this mentality in website design and development. I believe that websites should be a service and as a such should be subject to the same efficiency critique as other services. The irony of this is that the result of a successful information site is that the user session time will be short! I can see another post on vanity metrics waiting to happen…

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