Why is usability collapsing?

Corporate website usability is moving in the wrong direction and social media is to blame, David Bowen says.

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ExxonMobil Chevron

I have been trying to work out why corporate websites have been getting worse. We will give our evidence when the next FT Bowen Craggs Index is published next month. But take it from me now. With a few honourable exceptions, the path is downwards.

What I mean by this is that they are getting more difficult to use. Where previously the aim was to get anywhere in three clicks or less, and clear labelling was part of the gospel of web design, many sites these days seem to delight in making life as difficult as possible for their users.

Form over function

The new ExxonMobil site is an example. The previous site was not great, but it was pretty easy to get around. Now, with no left menu, over-large fonts and an obsession with making people scroll, form has slaughtered function. I have done a video screen capture of a simple but plausible task – to look for the quarterly results, SECfiling and annual reports – for a number of company sites. With Chevron, which uses conventional left navigation, I took 14 seconds. With Exxon Mobil, 40. A lot of this was fiddling about as I worked out what to do – scrolling up and down, clicking on dropdown panels and breadcrumb trails. But even if I had done it many times before it would still have been a tedious process – extra clicking and extra scrolling must take time.

There are plenty of other examples – ExxonMobil is just following the new look of big scroll, big font, big hassle. What baffles me is why this was not picked up by usability testing – this, surely, is the ultimate road test. I’ve heard it so many times when I’ve ranted about a site: ‘Well, it did fine in our usability tests’.

Font of bad usability

There is a reason for this, I believe. The problem is that people have got so used to bad usability that they barely notice it. And behind this lies the font of bad usability: social media.

Most of the social media sites I know are horrible to get around. But that doesn’t matter for them because people use them over and over again. And once they have worked out how to do something, they no longer notice the usability is bad – quite likely, they feel pleased with themselves for having got to grips with it.

This morning I got an email from Facebook telling me ‘a lot has happened since you last logged on. You have five new notifications’. I clicked the link and it took me to my Facebook page. The word ‘notification’ does not appear anywhere on the page. There is however a globe at the top, and I know (because I’ve used to before) that this is where notifications are kept. I clicked it and there is only one notification. Two major usability errors; but I’m used to them.

I also tried to give away my children’s wetsuit on Freegle, a set of local sites that allows us to give each other things we don’t want. It is hosted by Yahoo, specifically Yahoo Groups. A note at the top of the page says ‘We’ve improved your Yahoo Groups’ experience’, and leads to a set of pages showing what they the changes are. What it does not explain is why they make it much harder to post simple messages. I discovered the trick is to click ‘conversations’ at the top, leading to a page with Topics and Messages at the top. No obvious way to post a message here, but there is a ‘New topic’ link to the right. I clicked that, and it appeared to let me post a message. At least I hope it’s a message, because I want to get rid of wetsuits, not start a conversation about them.

Hijacking the language

One problem, it seems to me, is that these sites expect people to understand their language, which often has precious little relationship to the meaning of the words as we know them. Facebook hijacked the word ‘like’ to mean ‘notice’ – and quite often ‘dislike’. ‘Status’ … The Oxford English Dictionary, says it means ‘rank, position or standing’ or by extension ‘personal condition’. Not, as Facebook insists ‘what’s on your mind?’

Another is that they are obsessed with over-simplifying, and that makes them highly inflexible. Yahoo could have given me the option to post a message, but that would have been another link. So I had to guess what they meant by ‘New topic’. We are expected to be flexible because they refuse to be.

But Yahoo and Facebook are only the start. LinkedIn… don’t get me going on that. I use it a fair bit, and still manage to get lost half the time. Then there is Flickr. More and more companies are using it for their image libraries – we tend to give it the benefit of the doubt, because it has strengths and is free. We also assume professional picture editors can get to grips with the diabolical navigation. But should they have to?

Complexity curse

It’s a trend, this shift to complexity. Modern televisions tend to have rubbish usability too – you have to do a finger dance with two or more remote controls. We accept this because we use them so much. But I couldn’t accept it when I wanted a machine to allow my elderly mother to listen to stories – you can, if you look hard, still get old-fashioned cassette recorders with a simple set of rocker switches at the front. Of course I could have bought any number of fancy CD players with a rash of tiny buttons; but my mother would have had no chance at all of using them.

Corporate websites are different

Maybe I am hopelessly out of date on this. I missed being a digital native by several decades. But I really don’t think I am wrong: corporations need to retrieve the basic usability of their websites, for two reasons.

First, few people go to the corporate sites regularly, so they do not have time to get used to their strange quirks.

Second, they don’t visit because they want to. They go because they want to some piece of information, or to do something. And they want to do that as quickly as possible. If they can’t they will subconsciously – or not – think worse of the organisation (this is called damaging the brand). If the company is clever, it will not only allow them to find what they want, it will insert into their heads some extra titbits or impressions they did not have before (this is called enhancing the brand).

Which is better? I need to think about that one.

First published 03 September, 2014
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