Travel website usability by a travel writer

I’ve written before about how much airline websites annoy me for their lack of usability, but it turns out I’m not the only one: Check out this article by The Age travel writer Clive Dorman. He might not be talking about things in the same way as I have, but he is far more eloquent:

…[I ] had a dream about a super-fast airline website that performed each action so fast and seamlessly it was truly joyous (OK, so I’m part-nerd). I was truly disappointed this morning when I realised it was still a mental pie in the sky. (Read more)

Clearly Clive has experienced the same problems I and no doubt countless others have, and he is giving them voice in a large platform. The airlines need to listen to this kind of feedback; the first airline to get their website right is likely to gain some business even if they are a little more expensive than the alternatives.

Consumer trends in business applications?

ERP software analyst Stephen Jannise from ecently emailed me with a link to an interesting post about social and e-commerce software trends that could be implemented in business-based software.  Trends he highlights include Twitter-like feeds, the ‘like’ button on facebook, and Google’s search autocomplete.

I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen’s perspective on each of the features he covers, but I don’t want to post about why now, because he’s running a poll and I don’t want to screw up the results for him by introducing bias. Having said that, his post raises some really interesting ideas, so get over to his palce and read the post and vote in his poll–once he posts the results (which he is going to make public), I’ll comment on the features myself.

iPad: Sit and listen, don’t speak

I recently had the opportunity to use an iPad for a while at work (I know, I’m already well behind the cool kids).  I found the device not wildly exciting, for two main reasons.

The first reason is that it is a single-user device, so in a situation where one has been bought for everyone to have a play with and try, the device is very nearly hamstrung. Admittedly with a little more effort I probably could have convinced the thing to talk to my itunes account and downloaded some free apps and cool stuff, but the fact that this was not obvious means this is not a device to be shared between people who don’t share passwords and credit card details.

The second thing that was more immediately obvious, and more confounding was that within even a few moments of interaction it was clear the iPad is very much a device for consumption, and not for production. Although the touch screen would make the ipad an obvious choice for some kind of gestural or pen-based input, this isn’t available (perhaps Apple are still smarting from the spectacular failure of the Newton?), and the native “keyboard” is noticeably clunky to use. This means that for all production purposes–even those which involve consuming media (such as annotating books or pictures, gestural photo or video editing)–that would seem ideally suited to a touch-based interface, the iPad in it’s native state is essentially useless. Even doing a Google search on this thing is hard. And while there are pens you can buy, and keyboards, and apps and all kinds of workarounds, it doesn’t change the fact that all of these things are not what this large and expensive piece of equipment was designed for.

I’m not alone in my assessment of these limitations of course. Larry Marcus says that the iPad is no replacement for a laptop unless you are primarily a consumer. Nathan Jurgenson at Sociology Lens reinfirces that prosumption is not where it’s at for the iPad. Jeff Jarvis, in his must-read review calls the iPad vapid and shallow, and points out how it is a move backwards from the open content the web made possible. Cory Doctorow takes it one step further and points out the iPad itself is a closed device. Jonathan Zittrain points out that even Apps don’t make the iPad open because they are vetted (and makes some very interesting points about a large antitrust suit against another technology company).

None of this is to say that the iPad doesn’t have a market; Jake Simms thinks “grown ups” will like it, Steve Myers reports on a panel at SXSW that suggested the iPad is designed for “laid back” computing, and Kathy E. Gill says we will have to wait and see how people use it in their consumption activities.

Personally, I won’t be getting an iPad; I have a netbook that does all the consumption things an iPad does except nice ebook reading, and there are cheaper ebook readers (if and when I decide to get one) and plenty of prduction things besides. While iPads are very du jour, I think they have missed a number of interesting interaction possibilities afforded by a touch screen, and I will be interested to see where they go from here.  Any iPad users care to comment on their use?

What’s not being considered in the MEL train debate: User experience

As a frequent traveller, I’ve noticed the long drawn out debate about whether Melbourne ought to have a train to the airport has heated up again this year, possibly as a result of Victoria’s transport minister Martin Pakula saying it isn’t a priority. I have to be honest, I have a vested interest in the outcome of all this. As an expat Kiwi living in Melbourne who travels home regularly and has experienced the best and the worst travelling to the airport has to offer, I’m firmly in the pro-train camp–but the reasons for this are more than just my personal best interest, as we shal explore below.

Those arguing for rail point out that it could bring signficant money to Melbourne, that Melbourne is growing (as is the congestion on the Tullamarine freeway), and that it is a necessary competition to the exhorbitant parking fees paid by those who drive to the airport (this last from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Those arguing against a train claim it is not needed and likely to be uneconomic, based on experiences in Sydney and Brisbane, and that a travel time of 40 minutes each way to the airport during peak time is acceptable.

At present there are three main options for getting to and from the Melbourne Airport:

All of the currently available options have significant negatives for all users: those in Melbourne on business can expect to lose nearly two hours of their day travelling between the CBD and the airport; disabled travellers may have trouble getting to and from the airport at all; the first and last thing tourists see of Melbourne is either the SkyBus or a taxi, both of whch travel on the congested Tullamarine Freeway; and regular travellers face the choice between the possibility of a long wait at the airport if they allow sufficient time for traffic or (and I speak from experience here) cutting it hair-raisingly close to missing an international flight. Things are sufficiently bad that it makes sense to have a rail link simply on the basis of the improved experience of those who need to get to and from the airport–and if the planners that be get it right, the improved user experience will also make a train make economic sense.

Captcha and accessibility

I’ve written before about the problems with anti-spam devices, but today I read some wonderful blog posts on this, and since I’m neither a user with a dsiability that prevents me from using CAPTCHA, nor an expert on accessibility for users with visual impairments, I will let the posts speak for themselves:

  • One user’s experience trying to sign up for a Gmail account, which failed because CAPTCHA has accessibility problems.
  • A study, showing that this is the majority experience of CAPTCHA (73% of users were unsuccessful using the ‘accessible’ version of CAPTCHA)
  • A discussion of the issue at Feminists With Disabilities, noting that to provide Google with feedback, you have to get through Captcha first, and how this further disavantages an already disadvantaged user population.
  • A link to the Google accessibility reporting function–please use this liberally if you notice any other problems with Google’s interfaces (and you have been able to sign up for an account).

As this article on anti-spam devices points out, it’s not just users with visual impairments that suffer when presented with CAPTCHA, it’s also users with reading difficulties, and even users without disabilities suffer some inconvenience.

It is telling that  one of the best cited posts on Captcha effectiveness (which finds CAPTCHA to be very effective) refers only to the ability of CAPTCHA to prevent spam. The “false positives”, where CAPTCHA fails to allow a human being to access a website, are dismissed with a single line “these are eminently human-solvable, in my opinion”, while pointing out that CAPTCHA is used on most interactive internet sites.

Spam is a usability and accessibility problem, but the way to solve it should not prevent users with disabilities accessing internet content. Not only is CAPTCHA as an approach inaccessible and unusable, but it’s widepsread implementation could end up costing sites which use it a lot of money.

Search isn’t king anymore: Google recognises browsing

Earlier this week, I was doing some Googling and I noticed something weird: Google now has facets that are visible all the time:

Google search results showing a range of left-hand facets and an updated interface, for example a new button shape.

Google with facets

You might also notice that the interface appears more modern–the shape and appearance of the button has changed, for example.  You can read more about that at the Google blog, but it’s notable that a lot of what they have done is good for users; the new logo is more readable and will likely be faster to download for example.

The thing that really excites me is that Google has recognised that search is no longer king: by including always-visible facets on the Google results page, they have recognised that browsing, refining, and manipulating results sets are part of the natural human information seeking process.

Larry Page (one of Google’s founders) once said that “the ultimate search engine would…always give you the right thing. And we’re a long….way from that”. I don’t think he’s right, and the reason why I don’t think he’s right is that it is not always readily apparent, even to the information seeker themselves, what they want. Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out what information will answer our questions; when we want to know what the formula is to convert degrees fahrenheit to degrees celsius, for example, information seeking in the information age is straightforward and requires only a simple search ( ‘how to convert from deg c to deg f‘will get a perfectly serviceable answer, and in fact if all you want to do is convert a temperature you can use Google’s ‘in’ operator by typing ‘16 C in F‘, for example).  Sometimes, though, you don’t know exactly what you want; “a good present for my brother” or “a good book” or “how users search the library shelves” are information needs that can’t be met by typing a simple phrase into Google; they require a process that includes searching, browsing, and refining.  Take the “good book” example from above; you might feel like a mystery or modern literature, and once you;ve decided on that you might like a certain author or subgenre, but who or what that might be might also require some digging around to discover, and once youv’e decided what you want to read you have to figure out how to get it–as an ebook? from a library? from a bookstore, either online or physical? This example shows how we search out there in the real world when there isn’t a straight answer (and sometimes not even a straigth question), and how important it is to have the option to browse; again taking the book example, browsing might also show you other books that seem like you might enjoy them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about Google and browsing–I’ve discussed before what a great thing it is that Google is incorporating browsing (and you can read more about how important browsing is in that post), and how their choice of facet location has influenced where we put the facets in our library search (and I’m really glad we went with Google on this one now). This is the most exciting time I’ve talked about it, though; Google’s results pages now reflect a truly natural information seeking process (without destroying the interface for “quick searches”), and thus represent a much better user experience than they have in the past.  Not only that, but this development will have a feedback effect: because Google has them, facets are more likely to be used in other information seeking interfaces (because users are used to them), and thus the experience of many of these interfaces will be improved as well.

Women in tech, inclusive design, and the lesson Apple learned today

Women are clearly a minority in tech fields, both in education and in the workforce.  There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, including cultural attitudes, lack of mentorship and outright hostility to women in tech. This post isn’t about the cause of having so few women in tech, though–it’s about the results. People tend to design for themselves, particularly in tech–and this is perfectly expected, but it does mean that with the paucity of women in tech fields, the design work in tech is not often done with women in mind. Testing on people not-like-designers who use or might use the thing you design is pretty much the core of usability.  Given that women do purchase and use technology, if possible it’s worth including some of us in any design team and it’s always worth including them in the testing phase of any product they might use, because they might just see it differently (this principle also applies to products that might be used by children or the elderly or anyone who is a target market for any product, particularly where they are not represented on the design team).  Back to women, though: today Apple has learned about including woment he hard way.

Today Apple announced their much awaited new toy.  As many people predicted, it is a tablet, and they have called it the iPad.  The name has problems, including the phonemic similarity to iPod which one of my workmates pointed out, but more embarrassingly for Apple the connotations that immediately led to not Apple, nor iPad, but iTampon being a trending topic on Twitter and some pretty vicious skwereing on sites like adfreak

Apple's iPad spoof advertisement showing feminine hygiene product

This isn’t the first time Apple has forgotten women in it’s design process, I’ve already blogged about the direction of the clip on the iPod shuffle. Despite the free publicity, though, this is the one they might learn from–being ridiculed all over the internet probably wasn’t what they hoped for with this announcement. Apple may well have had women in their design process (there is a strange kind of groupthink that goes on on team-based design where people miss things that would bee seen by anyone outside the team), but they clearly didn’t test on a diversity of women.

The name of this product shows it wasn’t designed with me in mind, and makes me a little less likely to buy it as a result–this design, like the clip on the shuffle isn’t inclusive.  Obviously not enough people complained about the shuffle, and Apple didn’t understand the need to include women in design and testing.  I bet they will next time, though, and I hope other companies have seen Apple’s mistake and learned something too.



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