Web usability has a long way to go

First thing in the morning I often browse through recent blog posts and follow links that look interesting.

I noticed a free Windows 2008 book offer from Microsoft. Might be useful background for my review I thought – I’ll download it.

I lost count of how many slow, unresponsive pages I had to traverse before getting the book. Yes, I am persistent. I do recall having to sign in with Windows Passport (to the same account) twice – once to register for the book, and a second time for something called the E-Learning center, both times passing registration forms that I have seen many times before and do not intend to change. The final annoyance is that you cannot right-click and download the PDF; it is a Javascript link that opens in the browser. In my case I’ve set Adobe Reader to open outside the browser, which helps, but it is still an irritation.

It would not be so bad if this labyrinth of links were quick to navigate, but they are not. The problem in this case does not appear to be the download of large files (the PDF actually came down quickly once I got there), but rather slow server-side code resulting in web pages that seem to hang.

Next came an irony. Via Jimmy Guterman at O’Reilly I noticed a presentation by Edward Tufte on the Apple iPhone UI. Guterman warned that it was a large Quick Time file that would take “many minutes” to download. I clicked anyway. And waited. It was better than endless link-clicking, but still a poor user experience – no download thermometer, just a web page that seems completely unresponsive.

I agree with Guterman – the video is worth watching. Key points:

  • The content is the interface – remove “computer administrative debris” like buttons and toolbars.
  • Clutter is a failure of design
  • Add detail to clarify

Nevertheless, getting to the video is a lousy experience. The key here is that progress indicators transform the user’s perception of lengthy operations. I don’t just mean a spinning hourglass or the browser’s loading thermometer – we’ve learned that these are unreliable indicators, and that we may wait forever.

One thought on “Web usability has a long way to go”

  1. I find it funny how often I have to click a ‘download’ button before actually downloading a plug-in or piece of software. I know it helps me get to the right place but I can’t help being amused going through 3 or 4 pages (each with its own large download button) before the thing actually starts to download.

Comments are closed.