We put eight travel websites through their paces to find out which offered the best usability, design and navigation for surfers.
The telephone number is always visible: one of the main concerns for web customers, particularly those just about to hand over their hard-earned cash, is ‘how do I get in touch if something goes wrong?’ Displaying an easy to find telephone number in the same place on every page of a website provides customers with a safety net. This also helps to instil trust, especially in a cynical world where some sites antagonise customers by seemingly hiding contact numbers in an effort to reduce calls (and costs) to their call centres.
Help when you need it: ‘Villa Category. What does that mean?’ Contextual help icons are the small little ‘i’ marks usually found next to forms. Clicking one of these causes a small pop-up box to open containing an explanation of what the item means. This is one of the most effective methods of offering online assistance. Why are they so good? Because they provide the answers right there in situ without forcing visitors to hunt down information elsewhere, which often means losing their current spot in the site.
Unfriendly error messages: error messages such as ‘Some mandatory fields have been omitted’ and ‘You must tell us which street you live in’ are too harsh and doctrinaire for surfers. Remember that your site is being used by a human being and not a computer and softer helpful messages are more appropriate.
Overall rating: 21/25
This is a good site with particular attention paid to the navigation.
Frequently asked questions: well-designed FAQs supply the answers to questions most often asked by customers. Questions such as “What if I need to change my reservation?” and “What’s included in the price?” are good examples. The questions should be presented in a list at the top of the page with anchors to each one. This enables people to see all the questions in one place without needing to scroll. However, be aware that roughly half of all Internet users do not know what “FAQ” stands for.
Browser back button broken: the browser back button is one of the most important navigational aids which site visitors rely on heavily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work on the Superbreak site, leaving visitors unable to get back to where they were. This will infuriate people because it forces them to go through the pain of finding that page from scratch. Be warned: breaking the back button is asking for trouble.
Marketing opt in: in December 2003 a small piece of legislation came into effect. The EC Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications states that you have to obtain permission from a consumer before you contact them via e-mail for the first time. When signing up for a brochure, the question “Do you wish to receive details of our regular special offers?” has the default option set to “yes”. This means unless a visitor takes action to alter this, they will automatically receive marketing e-mail messages or spam.
Overall rating: 18/25
This is a messy site with too much poorly structured information.
Progress indicators: progress indicators let visitors know how far they are along a given process (these are most often used in lengthy booking procedures) and how many steps they have left to go. And let’s face it, no-one likes to go on a journey of undetermined length. The four main steps in the booking process have been clearly labelled on this site and give users good signposting as to how far along they are and how many steps are left to go.
Proposition of the site unclear: visitors to a site quickly want to determine a few things. ‘What is the site about?’, ‘What can I do here?’ and ‘Is it relevant to me?’ Unless users can find the answers these questions pretty fast, they may soon give up and try their luck elsewhere. Cosmos appears to specialise in holidays to the Canaries, but the specific destinations it actually sells are not that clear and users may feel let down when they then discover that the operator doesn’t cover holidays to Spain for example.
Images too small: the Internet is very much a visual medium and when it comes to making purchase decisions, people like to look at pictures; nice, big, clear pictures. Sadly, the photographs on the Cosmos website are the size of a special-edition stamp, which hinders customers’ ability to make an informed choice.
Overall rating: 16/25
This is an unpolished site with a homemade feel and a few rough edges.
Clear main navigation: the navigation structure of the EasyCruise site is emblematic of its owner, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and the whole ‘Easy’ brand. It is simple, uncomplicated with no frills. Headings such as ‘Our itineraries’, ‘Our Destinations’ and ‘Our ships’ are wholly clear and do exactly what they say on the tin. Potential cruisers will draw an inward sigh of relief when they realise that they do not have to figure out some new fangled navigation. The EasyCruise site is the simplest there is.
Uncluttered look and feel: the website makes good use of white space, which is calming on the user’s eye. The designers have avoided the temptation to cram as much information as possible on to the pages, opting instead for a crisp, uncluttered and minimalist design. As Albert Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This is a good case in point. Everything that needs to be there is there, but no more.
Insufficient colour contrast: despite the good use of white space, the colour contrast between the faint orange font that is used for the links and the white background is not sufficient and is hard to read. This will leave many users squinting and leaning forward, meaning they will strain their eyes as they try to read the content.
Overall rating: 16/25
This is a highly usable site, but there is room for improvement in the booking process.
Prose limited on the homepage: the amount of prose (or long chunks of text) has been limited on the homepage. When people first arrive to a website, they scan it, sniffing out relevant link titles and major headings – a bit like a hound dog looking for a scent that will take them a little closer to what they want to find. For this reason, prose-free homepages are best because they enable quick scanning of all the available options without the need to read lots of copy.
Virtual tours: quite simply, virtual tours are a no-brainer. The Internet is about sharing information and what better way to show off a resort than to offer a comprehensive virtual tour. For people looking to book a holiday this is clearly a good way to see what the place is really like and is an excellent way in which to use of technology that wasn’t available a few years ago. A bit like brochures, only they move and give users a more three-dimensional view of the resort.
Build your own e-brochures: the option to ‘build your own personalised brochure from the holiday and travel information on the website’ is dubious. Why would users want to invest the time to do this when they are researching their holiday? It sounds like hard work and is an example of a great piece of functionality, but unfortunately no-one will use it. Check your server stats for proof.
Overall rating: 18/25
This site is pretty confusing. Everything is there, but it requires better organisation.
Indicating required fields on forms: the fields which need to be filled in the booking process are shown with a red asterisk positioned in front of the form label. This is practically common web convention and users like it because it saves them from having to fill in the bits they don’t want to without risking their form being returned with dastardly errors.
Being able to sort results: the ability to sort the search results by criteria is most important when customers are faced with a list of 62 flights to choose from. Travelbag provides the ability to sort flight results by airline, departure time, arrival time, travel time, number of stops and, last but by no means least, price. This makes identifying your best match significantly faster and easier.
Meaningless strapline: ‘Travel created for you’. What exactly is that about then? A good strapline is a small but perfectly formed nugget of information that lets customers know in the second it takes to read what a website is about and what makes it unique from its competitors. This helps users decide whether the site is for them, or whether they should be looking elsewhere. Unfortunately, this strapline doesn’t quite do that. A good example of a strapline is the old AutoTrader.com one: ‘Search the largest inventory of cars and trucks on the Internet. More than 1.5 million listings, updated daily’.
Overall rating: 21/25
A well designed site with a dash of thought to usability but still somewhat cluttered.
Text links are easy to spot: years ago, back in the old days of the Internet, text links were very easy to spot. They were blue. They were underlined. But after a time designers thought this wasn’t cool anymore so they did clever things, like not underlining them at all. This made finding them into a subconsciously annoying game for users. This was an evolutionary step back for intelligent design, like when telephones lost their receiver cradles, meaning it became possible to drop the phone and get cut off. Fortunately FlyBMI’s links are all underlined and are quick to find.
Two column forms: when working through a process such as booking, it’s much easier if there is only one way to move through the online form, and that is down. Forms that are split over two columns often cause problems for users who need to work out the correct order and often miss out fields by accident. This will mean having to return to the page to fill in the empty fields and will only cause annoyance in the long run.
No home link: Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was right; “There’s no place like home”. The same can be said of websites. The home link is one of the most important navigational links on any website and users rely on it like a security blanket to get them out of a difficult spot. Users expect one – not having one as part of the primary navigation will confuse them.
Overall rating: 21/25
This website is well structured and the presentation is extremely good.
Terms and conditions are written in plain English: there is a strong case for speaking the language of your users online. Jargon, gobbledygook and legalese tend to go down like a lead balloon and are likely to confuse and frustrate surfers. They should be avoided at all costs, especially when potential bookers are required to provide their consent to terms and conditions on a site. Visitors are more likely to trust a website that writes terms and conditions in language they can actually understand.
Checking train times: the process for finding train times is more confusing than trying to one would expect from a Virgin branded site. Selecting a train journey requires trying to figure out a mess of tables and the various options are difficult to understand. Unfortunately, in this case, the telephone is definitely an easier option.
Verifying passwords: it is human nature to look for short cuts and research shows that users will try to copy and paste their passwords into any ‘confirm password’ field. But this also means that any spelling mistakes will also get transferred over, so negating the whole point of confirming the password. This problem can be easily be designed out by simply not enabling this in the code.
Overall rating: 15/25
There is nothing easy about this site and the train search functionality is tiresome.
Catriona Campbell and Lisa Halabi are director and usability specialist repectively at Foviance. Foviance is a new company created from the merger of usability specialists The Usability Company and web analytics software vendor WebAbacus. The merger formed a new organisation that combines the strength of expertise in the area of user experience with the power of web analytics technology to help organisations measure, understand and enhance the quality of the online systems they provide for their users. Foviance’s client roster includes 43 of the FTSE top 100 UK companies, as well as international clients across Europe, Asia and the US.
Using a variety of tools Foviance tested the eight sites to see how they measure up against a variety of usability tests in the Foviance labs. Rather than having a set list of criteria to assess a site’s interaction with users, Foviance highlighted some of the positive and negatives aspects of each site.
These include such areas as the visibility of messages for users, general design and navigation, number of broken links, quality of images, search functionality, ease of use for forms and simplicity of terms and conditions.
In outlining the highlights and problems with each site, coupled with the standard tests, Foviance was then able to produce an overall score.
Usability is a science founded from the disciplines of psychology, IT and ergonomics. Qualified individuals are called human computer interaction (HCI) experts.
Foviance conducted an expert or heuristic evaluation – the most popular of the usability inspection methods. Heuristic evaluation is done as a systematic inspection of a user interface design for usability. The goal of heuristic evaluation is to find the usability problems in the design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process.
Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognised usability design principles (the ‘heuristics’).