Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Rant on websites

Almost every time I have to use the website of a major company, I am driven to frustration, sometimes even anger, over the incredible incompetence and lack of user-friendliness shown.

Amazon is a splendid example: In the mid- and late nineties Amazon provided a wonderful service, allowing me to buy books online and, most importantly, buy books in English that were not available in Sweden and Germany. One might imagine that Amazon would have built on this to become something truly great—they did not (although, presumably, they still earn a lot of money). There is no end to the idiocies I have seen at Amazon. Just a few examples (note that I have not checked whether these still apply, I really do not use Amazon anymore):

  1. The search per default includes items that are not deliverable or only deliverable through third-parties. There is no way to change this behaviour—yet, like any sensible user, I would prefer to per default only see objects that I can actually order from Amazon.

    (Note that with “not deliverable” I do not refer to a “We are out of stock. Delivery will be possible in four weeks.”, but “This item is no longer in print. Please sign up so we can notify you when the next printing is done.” or “... when a used copy is offered for sale.”. This is a valid feature, no doubt; but such items do not belong in the default listing.)

  2. The reviews of (untranslated) English books on the German site only include entries made over the German site—the plethora of reviews made over the US and UK sites are not present.

  3. It is not possible to order from the US and UK sites with the standard German payment methods; in particular, no internal clearing between the sites is done. This is particularly annoying as the prices on the German site are typically higher for the same items and the number of available (English language) items is lower.

  4. The layout of the product pages is extremely poorly thought through from a user perspective, and Amazon is so keen on recommending other products on the pages that it actually becomes hard to order what one was searching for in the first place.

  5. At the time of writing, I investigate the possibility and potential gain from opening an affiliate store on this website. As it turns out, I have to sign up with each individual local Amazon site to ensure that everything works as it should. If I were to only sign-up for the German program, only products bought over amazon.de give provisions; products bought over the com, co.uk, jp, ... sites earn me nothing—unless I enter additional agreements with those sites.

Another horrible example is www.stepstone.de (a job hunting site). Among the many idiocies:

  1. Every single time I have tried to edit my CV, I receive an error message that a mandatory field is not filled out. As turns out, there is a radio button where the user has to indicate whether he wants to receive notification emails or not. Stepstone, however, consistently forgets (or more likely “forgets”) that I have declined notifications. I have put this problem to the attention of Stepstone; no action has been taken.

  2. On the page for language skills there are two entry areas, one for native languages, one for secondary languages. The second field has no noticeable function whatsoever. To enter a secondary language, I have to add a new native language! Stepstone’s comment on this: This is the intended behaviour!


Today I decided to make a search directly through Stepstone (I usually rely on a meta-search that incorporates a number of sites), having in the mean-time forgotten how idiotic the site is. The result was as follows:

  1. Open the start page in my default browser (everything intrusive turned off).

  2. Find that the start page is so poorly programmed that it is impossible to make menu choices without images.

  3. Activate images: One click, no big deal.

  4. Go to the detail search.

  5. Read rudely formulated message about JavaScript being needed: OK, this is border-line justified use of JavaScript, with some valid state changes involved. Rudeness does not help anyone, however.

  6. Copy current address and move it to another browser where I allow JavaScript.

  7. Find that, through incompetent programming, this address did not reflect the detail search. Apparently, the information of which page is current, was kept over some other mechanism than the URL (likely cookies)—not only a disputable design choice, but arguably even a violation of the HTTP protocol. Indisputably, it is highly user-unfriendly, because it makes it impossible to even bookmark the start page for the detail search.

  8. Re-select the detail search, with some annoyance.

  9. Enter search data in a number of fields. Be further annoyed that there is no “within a distance of X km from Y”-option, but only a “first digit of ZIP-code”. (The former is relatively common nowadays, is noticeably more user-friendly, and extremely valuable in Cologne where even a comparatively small neighbourhood crosses the border between 4xxxx and 5xxxx—I have worked on both sides of this border while living in my current apartment.)

  10. Be confronted with a page claiming roughly “No search has yet been made. Enter your email address here, so that [something or other].”

  11. Lose temper, hit ALT-F4, and for the umpteenth time swear never, ever to waste time with Stepstone again. (This should be seen in light of Stepstone having managed to anchorw it self to a state of extreme irritation in me. The number of annoyances and frustrations per unit of time spent there exceeds that of e.g. MS Windows.)[TODO write separate article on anchoring and the way various companies overlook the danger of anchoring negative emotions in their users/customers.]

I note, in particular, that the way the search is programmed, there is no way to “bookmark” a search with a certain set of criteria—something which would be a truly valuable functionality. (In fact, as noted above, it is not even possibly to bookmark the start page for detail searches.) Instead, if I recall a much earlier visit correctly, the ostensible purpose of entering the email address would be to allow the user to store the search for later retrieval in the Stepstone system—a vastly inferior mechanism. The true purpose, in all likelihood, is to be able to harass the user with newsletters and similar—I have over the years received at least ten times as much spam from Stepstone as I have positions and projects, some of it based on accounts that I have explicitly deleted from its system. (I do not recall whether it was possible to see the search results without entering the email address, and I am sure as hell not going to go back to investigate that matter.)

Consider, alternatively, what I experienced when trying to find the lyrics of a particular song over Google (normally something that takes ten seconds): The first website I found showed the lyrics; however, had a constantly blinking message complaining about my having JavaScript turned off on the screen—the visual equivalent of someone using an electric drill. I moved on to the next site, just to find that it refused to show the lyrics unless I explicitly accepted its “terms of use”. Not knowing what complications could ensue after that, I moved on again. The third site, alas, also refused to show the text; this time, unless I turned JavaScript on. Only the fourth (!) gave me what I wanted in the manner they all should have—no bitching, no “terms of use”, no JavaScript. (Notably, as is usually the case, none of the sites had a valid reason to require JavaScript in that particular context.)

What really bugs me is that the larger the company, the worse the web-site—contrary to what one would expect. A general tendency seems to be that actual information and usability is given less and less weight in favour of visual appearance (not always with a successful result) and overuse of unnecessary features. Further, I have a very strong impression that many companies deliberately try to hide information that the user would benefit from, e.g. telephone numbers to customer service (read-up on the history of PayPal!) or price information. Interestingly, there are many webpages giving advice on do’s and do-not’s, elementary errors, etc.—and the bigger the company, the lesser the adherence to these advice sites...

A good example of how many organisations let appearances take precendence over usability is the use of redirects, e.g. on a start page: In the early days of the WWW support of automatic redirects was not universal (and even today some users occasionally disable it). Correspondingly, it was vital for anyone using a redirect to add a textual message along the lines of “If you are not automatically redirected, please click on this link ...”—yet, often this was not done. Often this was simply because someone did not realize that these complications existed; however, sometimes it was a deliberate choice. The one time I, myself, have discussed the topic with a customer, he insisted that there must not be a text: Even the users who had support for redirects (and had it activated) could sometimes see the text of the redirecting page flash by before the replacement page was displayed, and this would look improfessional... Nevermind that some users would be stuck on a blank page without being able to access the site at all: To give the majority a perfect impression was more important than to ensure that everyone had an impression at all. (The same kind of absurd reasoning is likely behind many of the flawed designs out there.)

Two pieces of advice that almost all websites of large corporations would benefit from:

  1. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

  2. Focus on content and usability—not layout.

Remark: Depending on when you read this, you may find that my own website is lacking in e.g. usability. This is because I, for personal reasons, want to reach a certain critical mass before I divert my attentions to such issues.