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Making Websites User-Friendly… Or Not

If you run a business, your website represents you online in the same way that your bricks-and-mortar store represents you in the physical world. This is true whether or not you actually use your website to sell things. (Imagine that someone walks into your business. Even if they are just browsing or asking for a quote, everything that they see and hear while they are in your building contributes to their overall impression of you.)

So why is it that anybody who spends even a little bit of time shopping online has run into numerous websites that completely ignore the impression that they are making on customers? I can only guess.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that building a website is often a collaborative project, which creates challenges. There could potentially be a whole team of specialists working on the website; programmer, graphic designer, copywriter, and photographer, to name a few.

The question that needs to be asked is: has anyone been assigned to take a more general view and figure out if the finished project is doing its job?  Judging by some of the websites I’ve used recently, the answer could be “no.”

Let me share a web design horror story. Names have been withheld, to protect the guilty, but I assure you that this site exists.


You’re doing it wrong

An international pizza joint with an outlet near my house has had a sexy website upgrade. It has mouth-watering photography and cool interactive menus. It is also now nearly impossible to order pizza.

Here is what happens when you try:

1) On arriving at the site’s main page, you are asked for your postal code. This is presumably so the site can customize the menus you see based on what is actually available at the restaurant closest to your location. Not a bad idea.

2) You type in your postal code. The website displays an error message.

3) Repeat.

4) If you manage to get past step three, you get to play with the nifty interactive menus. Unfortunately, they don’t work in some web browsers. This means that you can see a lot of menu options, but only select some of them.

5) You disable all of your browser plugins. You are still unable to order pizza.

6) You switch browsers. Still unable to order pizza.

7) You order one of the menu options that you can actually select, instead of the pizza that you wanted.

8 ) In order to pay for your order, you have to log in with a user name and password. There is a prominent “Register Here” button. You have a bad feeling about this.

9) “The username that you have selected is already in use. Please try another username.”

10) Repeat.

11) “The password that you have selected is already in use…” (Wait…what?  There are security concerns here…)

12) You decide that phoning the restaurant would probably be faster. You try to look up the phone number in the “Restaurant Locations” area of the website…however you need to be logged in with a username and password to view this information.

13) You return to trying to create an account and finally come up with a magical combination of username and password that allows you to do so. (Intriguingly, “BrokenWebsite” is unavailable because it is already in use by someone else.)

14) You submit your order, by now a little worried about trusting your credit card information to this company.

15) “We are sorry; we are unable to process your order at this time. We are aware of this issue, and are working to resolve it.” Maybe it’s a temporary glitch?

16) Re-order.

17) “We are sorry; we are unable to process your order at this time….” Not temporary. Great.

18) Ask your spouse for the phone number to order pizza.

19) Call the pizza place’s national call centre and place an order. Note with increasing frustration that the number for the national call centre has not been visible on any part of the website that you have been able to access so far.

20) Receive two confirmation e-mails for the two orders that you (supposedly unsuccessfully?) placed online. Three orders of pizza are now on their way to your house.

21) Phone back the national call centre and ask them to cancel two of the three orders. They have no record of you having submitted any orders at all. Apparently they have been having some trouble with their website.

22) Ask a live human being for the phone number for the actual restaurant that is making your pizza. Phone them and cancel two out of three orders.

23) More than an hour after beginning the entire process, receive your pizza.


Doing it right

Contrast this with a competing pizza restaurant that does not even offer online ordering. Instead, they have an easy-to read menu on their website and a phone number to call to place your order. It takes less than five minutes, and the pizza is usually at your door in half an hour.

Guess which pizza place gets my business?

This is of course an extreme example of web design that has completely missed the point. There are less dramatic ways in which a website can unintentionally make a bad impression. Poor spelling, grammar or inaccurate information can also make a business look unprofessional and put off potential customers.

Before your website launches, get someone to look at it with the needs of your target audience in mind. These are probably pretty simple. No matter what business you are in, your prospective customers need to know the same basic things: who you are, what products or services you offer, and how they can get these from you.

Your customers need the information on your website to be accurate and up-to-date. They need to be able to access it no matter what device or browser they are using. (Has anyone checked to see what your website looks like on a smartphone?)

Most importantly, they need your website not to be an enormous pain to use. Your competition is only a few clicks and keystrokes away.  Make a mistake and your customers can and will go elsewhere.

About Katherine Gorham

Katherine Gorham is a writer, editor, junior sysadmin and actor. She holds a bachelor's degree and a diploma in fine arts. Katherine blends her knowledge of technology with her creative talents to provide unique insights into problem solving that others often miss.

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