Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why Usability Matters

It's August, which means that Drew McManus is looking at various aspects of orchestra Web sites. In the past, he has typically not evaluated usability at this sites - but usability matters. Here are some issues I've seen at...well...let's call them the web sites of major classical music institutions.
  • This past June, I tried to find 2007-08 season information at one opera company's web site, and could not. I sent email to the webmaster, who then pointed me to the link. Now, I'm reasonably sophisticated about technology and how web sites work, but the link was not in an obvious place mere months before the commencement of the 2007-08 season. I felt slightly dumb for not having found it, but there were too many places to look.

  • One symphony has a search box that periodically goes out of whack, to the extent that searching for the music director's name doesn't return anything like the number of concerts he's conducting. Pick a composer whose work is being performed once during the season, search for that, and that program doesn't come up. I have a long-standing professional interest in search, so this is this is the sort of thing I notice, but I'm sure I'm not the only one.

  • The same organization's web site is so hammered today, because single-ticket sales went live, that you can't actually use their Web site to buy tickets. They're in the process of fixing that, and the box office will sell you tickets over the phone even though that wasn't scheduled for today, I found when I called the box office after 2 hours of trying. By then I was so frustrated I declined to buy anything.
  • Post-script to the bullet above: the fix for the hammered web site was to turn off single-ticket sales entirely. In the course of doing this, the same apologetic text appears twice on the home page. The text is text in one place, in a graphic in the other. Embedding text in a graphic means that people using screen readers will never see the text; it's a big usability error. The text plus graphic bit makes no sense at all. OTOH, this web site is notably cluttered, and it's antiquated both in layout and function. I've been informed that a redesign is in the works....
These episodes occurred at the web sites of big, well-funded organizations that presumably have IT departments, and they were pretty darned frustrating. I can't be the only person ready to hit my head against the wall over web sites that don't work very well.

The bottom line is that poor usability costs organizations money and good will, when patrons try to find out what's going on or buy tickets and can't.

Updated Aug. 31.


Anonymous said...

In my experience the problem with many web sites of arts organizations is that a lot of major decisions are made by board members to please board members. Building initiatives, Flash-based splash pages, and press releases are often more important than the core product that organizations are selling.

An architectural problem that larger institutions run into on their sites is the fact that web designers create a type of site where the main design is fixed, but allows a lot of administrators in the organization to add and link to content within that framework. The result of this kind of design is the type of bizarre and incomprehensible site you mention.

Then again, there are many organizations that have a simple and eloquent design that displays relevant content with a view towards a clear next action--going to concerts and getting involved.

I have yet to see an arts organization adopt the "perpetual-beta" approach used by many Web 2.0 companies, that create a constantly improving experience for the user determined by their needs.

Anonymous said...

The Royal Opera House revamped its website and got it very very wrong. Between about five of us we had 12 credit/debit cards rejected.

It is impossible to use w/o Flash, and many workplaces have Flash disabled; booking opens during the course of a weekday, when many online buyers are likely to be at work. Most mature workplaces don't mind a few minutes spent conducting personal business occasionally, but not necessarily an hour of having to ocncentrate. And they certainly won't enable Flash for such transactions

Lisa Hirsch said...

Chris, regarding boards - my impression is that the situation you're discussing is more likely to happen in a very small organization than a big one, where the board is pretty far from the IT department. As far as your second paragraph goes, the institution in question knows its web site design is out of date and problematic. The links within the site look like they are dynamically-generated, not hard-coded, for one thing.

Gert, that's terrible about the ROH. I know that it's very annoying to me when I click a link that says Opera and I wind up on a page that does NOT split out opera performances from everything else going on there.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa, I do take into account usability although that definition is fluid from one person to the next plus those issues are spread out over a variety of the review's subcategories. As such, you are correct in saying that there is no no single "usability" category or subcategory although perhaps the closest example is the category labeled "content & functionality."

However, with regard to the issues you've mention there have been some orchestras in the review so far which say single tix are available but I certainly had an impossible time finding them. Furthermore, scores are lowered for every error page or broken link I find as well as pages which take "X" amount of time to load (different types of pages have different minimums).

Some of Chris' comments are at the core of the website reviews, especially with regard to "a simple and eloquent design that displays relevant content with a view towards a clear next action--going to concerts and getting involved." What a great comment, I couldn't have said it better myself (mind if I use that - with attribution - in this year's review articles?).

One last point, the website reviews do not include opera organizations, only symphonic orchestras. I keep threatening to include opera organizations but the time never seems to materialize.


Lisa Hirsch said...

A very, very belated response as I slowly catch up on my email.

Hi, Drew. I have to read the full orchestral web site report at Adaptistration, which I haven't done yet. I will look at your usability material there.

You could get some volunteers to review orchestral web sites, I bet.