I just finished booking a flight for business on Southwest Airlines. I generally like to fly SWA, but I had an experience in their checkout that irritated the heck out of me. Had I not already shopped on different travel sites and found their fares to be the best and offering the shortest flight time, I might have bagged it altogether.
I live in St. Louis. When I typed in “St.” to indicate my city, I was greeted with an error message, stating that a period (.) was an illegal character.
I clicked the back button, and changed it to “Saint” and hit enter. I was rewarded with another error, this time warning that I had some sort of problem with using the back button. Subsequent attempts at salvaging my session failed. I finally started over altogether and was successful.
First, I can’t believe a big outfit like SWA can’t find a programmer to convert “St.” into “Saint” during the validation process. Second, I’d like to think if your booking utility would break its session by using the “back” button, you could give some sort of feedback to that effect (or better yet, build a better booking utility).
Bottom line, details matter. On the plus side, SWA has a fairly clean interface, and it’s great when it works. On the other hand, these little details that ended in user frustration may be costing them considerable sales.
“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics” is a quote attribute to the great general Omar Bradley. Patton’s brilliance on the battlefield was inextricably linked to the availability of mundane supplies such as fuel, ammunition and food. If there is a meme I would like to promulgate ans a webmaster, it would be “Amateurs talk design, professionals talk usability.” It would be hard to recount how many very attractive websites fail because of poor usability features. Wikipedia says of usability that it “… refers to the elegance and clarity with which the interaction with a computer program or a web site is designed.”
This is probably the single biggest challenge I have faced as a webmaster. Designers are typically working with print layout software and a print layout mindset. These designs have to be transformed into working software with up to five different browsers and many different possible screen resolution and aspect ratios. They design a print version of a website that inadvertantly creates barriers to users engaging their content. The fonts, colors, backgrounds and layouts fit with perfect clarity on an 8 1/2 x 11 color print, but disintegrate when posted to a website where the canvas can be anywhere from 800 pixels to 1600 pixels wide with unlimited combinations of contrast levels and color settings.
An example: A designer created a comp of a website that had a white background. Text links were 8 points and set to 40% gray. While somewhat legible on the color composite, the text was unreadable when converted to pixels in a browser. Even after creating a web version for review, the designer adjusted the contrast on her monitor and claimed that the problem was solved. I was finally able to prevail to a point, increasing the gray to 80% and increasing the font to 12 points, but this was but one struggle among many.
Often, web developers have to go to great lengths to preserve a design, locking down things that should float. Fonts and navigation are a frequent struggle as designers insist on a particular font and the web developer has to resort to images – a potential mess in when used in navigation.
Designers who are not sensitive to usability may choose a shorter word for a navigation link because it fits in the design without regard to how a user will interpret that in the coming months of use. Simple issues like these have created entire areas of valuable content that users simply don’t find.
Foundational errors like this have a huge impact when trying to make adjustments in response to performance metrics. In the example sited above, users may not follow a link because it does not have the kind of keyword they are looking for. If a web design is not flexible enough to accommodate substantial changes in navigation and layout after launch, you will not be able to correct usability issues and improve performance.
The final takeaway is this. Clearly web sites have to perform a measure of branding, however an lovely design is forgotten if the user is unable to get what they want from a site. You want users to learn about your company or buy your product. Insist that any design you follows basic usability standards and can be adjusted after launching your site in an iterative process.