why oh why

Why is Delta Dental Plan of California such a bad site? Other than ugly, badly executed (check out […]

Why is Delta Dental Plan of California such a bad site?

Other than ugly, badly executed (check out those poorly crushed images) and cluttered, it is nearly impossible to find basic information like copayments or yearly fees. Hasn’t the web been around long enough that huge million dollar organizations should have no excuse for bad websites? Aren’t there enough books, enough talented consultancies, enough articles online that any professional site should have at least a baseline of usability?


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  1. 1

    I wish it were possible. Unfortunately, it seems to me that large companies are retreating quickly from the positive HCI effects the dot-com period gave. During the 1995-2001 period, user-centered design seemed to be gaining ground. People who were peripherally involved in UCD (like me as a tech writer, or like undergrad psych majors who concentrated on some elements of cognition and who didn’t want to become clinicians) had the opportunity to get involved with software development, where earlier one had to have at least an M.S. in HCI to concentrate on the user.

    Yet now that the bubble has burst, I wonder if companies see what we do as tainted by that crash? I wonder if more and more big companies are retreating on Web development methodologies, going back to a software dev mentality of “oh, that user stuff is ‘nice-to-have’ fluff…but we have to get the functionality to work.” I wonder if the trend is toward a “good-enough-is-good-enough” approach.

    Where I work it’s bad, really bad: despite thousands of employees (unfortunately, I can’t name the company), there is NO ONE responsible for (or even allowed to consider) user-centered design.


  2. 2
    Lawrence Krubner

    What I’m struck with time and again is how many people still know almost nothing about computer and Internet technologies. I speak of people in business, people who might be expected to know something about it.

    I’ve helped many people set up small web sites, sometimes helping friends, sometimes doing it professionally. At least twice, when I suggested a minimalist design, the clients were disappointed that I wasn’t using more images. In reaction to that, for one site, I attempted what I thought of as a parody: several large images in their own DIVs moved by Javascript to come together slowly and resolve into one image, sort of like a Flash effect. The page took extremely long to load, which was the point I was trying to make. The client absolutely loved it and insisted on making it the front page of the site. I pointed out that most visitors wouldn’t wait 75 or more seconds for the images to download. She said, “On my machine it only takes about 5 seconds.” Then I tried to explain the concept of cache to her, the fact that her computer was no longer downloading the images, because it already had. She sounded suspicious, like I was trying to sell her something, like for some reason I was trying to talk her out of what was clearly, to her, a good thing. So they kept that front page for almost 2 years. It was really awful. I never included it in my portfolio because I was embarrassed by it. But they really liked it. This was a site for a music band, and I was dealing with the band manager, who in other ways was quite media savvy.

    Going further on this tangent: I used to work at a retail company that had 8 stores spread over New Jersey, and for all those stores there was only one computer, a 386 (this was 1998, so it was already old) running Windows 3.1 and an early version of Excel. And the owner handled all the company finances on that machine. Old technology is sometimes better than new, and upgrades are always a dicey bet on backwards compatibility (although Excel has a good record), so I don’t blame the owner for deciding not to upgrade.

    The company suffered from gross imbalances of inventory; one store would have way too much of something and another store would have too little of it. In the early days, when the company was small, the owner kept track of everything in his head. Now the chain had a small warehouse and few kids running a truck, but the owner still tried to oversee what inventory went to what store. It was a classic case of a company outgrowing what could be run by one person. There was a need for some new controls to be put in. The owner knew it and he and I spoke of it several times.

    I suggested that every store should have a computer and at the end of the day the managers could go to a central, password-protected website and post what they had too much of and too little of, and read what other managers had too much of and too little of. And then, each day, the kids who worked in the warehouse and ran the truck could look at that site and see which stores they should collect excess from, and which stores they should take it to. The info on the website could be stored in CVS format, for easy import into Excel. The store managers could, basically, take on the work of filling out the same Excel sheet that the owner was using to track inventory and reorder merchandise.

    That idea was shot down on the grounds it was too expensive, which may have been true, or at least partly true. I had the impression that right behind that reason was a fear of technology. Also, there were doubts about whether the store managers had the technology savvy to handle what I was proposing. The store managers tended to be in their 50s and not well educated. I thought the system could be made to work, and that it would be cheap, and that the store managers could be taught, but he didn’t feel the same way. And I respected his decision in this matter.

    A year after I’d left the company I went back to visit. Somehow the owner had been talked into installing a company wide intranet. The software on it was proprietary. The store managers were having an impossible time figuring out how the thing worked. The software didn’t interface with Excel at all, so the owner had been forced to upgrade his own system and learn new software, and the whole company was thrown into chaos as the owner no longer was able to track anything, nor refer back to older files that had historical data, for the new software was particular about how data was entered, and everything was in a new format now than it had been back in the old Excel days.

    I haven’t been back in 3 years so I don’t how it all turned out. The company was in chaos when I saw it, but a lot of companies go through that when they make the jump to big-league software. Things may have straightened out in the end. Still, I’m left with the impression that the owner was suckered into something expensive because it looked glitzy, and a system built around the Internet and using only a web browser at the client end would have been cheaper, and easier to teach to the store managers.

    It is very sad how much is destroyed by glitz.

  3. 3

    How about this for a reason: big companies simply don’t care about customers, whether those are external paying ones or internal employees. It’s costly and embarassing for to ask the necessary questions, so why do it?

    Focusing on the user to them sounds like an admission of failure: that they have to ask “permission” or “learn something” or “compromise” with their customers. “Ask the users? But then they’ll realize that we don’t know what we’re doing! Let’s just get things right the first time!”

    I had the manager of a large division within a technology-manufacturer tell me in a meeting once “you don’t test to get quality, you just build it right the first time.” And godammit, he told us that user testing was a sign that we didn’t know what we were doing.

    Add to that the tiny budgets and short schedules that are common now. I’m on a huge intranet/internet project for a 75-year old company with ten offfices accross Germany. They want every whizzbang feature they ever heard of, from scratch, for 75,000 bucks in three months. When I’ve suggested things like scheduling usability testing of a prototype, or spending two or three weeks in the client’s offices, the response I’ve gotten is “good enough will be good enough. It just has to work.”

  4. 4

    I certainly understand the frustrations on this page, but you know what? Design is hard (c) Don Norman.

    I have just started a new job where the focus is very much user-centred design. We start a project saying to the client “Here’s how users got on with your site, here’s where they failed, and here’s why.” Very often that wins us work.

    However once we come to re-designing these areas, it is still sometimes difficult to get what you want implemented. Even when you have good evidence to support that it meets users’ needs. There are many reasons clients tell us why they cannot do the change:
    > It goes against the aims of the organisation
    > It would need some fundamental changes in the organisation to support the feature (think contact us forms)
    > We would need sponsorship from our senior VP and now isn;t the time for that because they are making redundancies

    The list goes on and on. Which only supports the case that usability (and design) professionals need to be expert negotiators and influencers as well as understanding consumer behaviour etc.
    I, for one, am still learning these skills!

    Cheers, d

  5. 5
    Jared Spool

    I’ve often thought of trademarking the phrase “Bad Design Takes No Skill”.

    I’m never surprised by bad design (and this is far from the worst I’ve ever seen).

    Right now, good design is an uphill battle, for all the reasons that everyone above mentioned. In addition, it is also an unexplored territory, since every site really doesn’t work the majority of the time.

    There’s something we call the ‘talking horse’ phase. This site is definitely in that phase. It’s called this because of the old saying:

    “The miracle isn’t what the horse says, it’s that the horse can talk at all!”

    For an employee benefits company, this is a damn good talking horse — most of the ones I’ve seen are far worse.

    Combine that with the fact that you, the user, are probably not their real customer. Your (or your cute hubby’s) employers are. Employers don’t care about the information you care about. So, now they have to feign interest in you while they are really trying to make their paying customers happy. This situation is difficult under the best situations.

    Competitive pressures will change this, but it will take time. In the meantime, we suffer. That’s the way it always has been, with every new technology.

    I wrote about this in 1996 in an article called Market Maturity. I’ve been thinking writing an update to the article with the web in mind.

  6. 6

    Great comment, Jared! I encountered the same concept when I read Cooper’s Asylum. There he talks about the dancing bear, where people are amazed that the bear dances at all–and thus blinded by the sleight of hand so they don’t ask, “But does she dance well?” As he says (it might not be original with him, but that’s where I read it), “The only thing more expensive than developing software is developing bad software.”

    Somehow we have to get our companies or our clients to be honest…honest with us as team members and honest with their customers (I’ll settle, though, for the internal honesty). If we develop something quick (“It must be live by July 4!”) and cheap (“No more developers or HCI or designers assigned to the project”), then it ain’t gonna be good.

    In fact, it ain’t gonna be good enough.

  7. 7

    Wow, these are very illuminating comments. I’m with Lawrence – glitz obscurs good design. I have been in the exact position of over-designing a site as an example, then seeing it used as the final product. It has since been replaced with a design that is even worse. I live in fear that someone will connect it with me somehow.

    It’s very depressing. On another project, I was told “We trust you to design it well, we don’t need to test it.” This is incredibly frustrating, because to speak against this is kind of like biting the hand that feeds you. At least, they saw it that way.

    Too often, I think companies that should know better fall into this trap because they hire a glitzy design firm that looks professional and high-class, and they expect this to translate to good design. Since they wouldn’t know good from bad, they accept everything the design firm says, including “User testing isn’t necessary – your users are motivated enough to find the information they need.”

    The other alternative is the brother-in-law who “knows how to do HTML” and will be offended if any changes are suggested. Argh.

  8. 8

    The “dancing bear” quotation isn’t orginal with Cooper. I’m pretty sure it’s Alexander Pope, or Samuel Pepys or one of those guys, but I can’t seem to track it down right now… It may be so old that it’s just “a proverb” and not really anyone’s original phrase.

    Also sometimes it’s a poodle that dances.

  9. 9

    In my experience, progress toward a usable site is rarely linear. It’s more of a two steps forward, one step back kind of thing (although sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back). The first iteration of a site is done by the techies. When nobody visits it, the second iteration is done by an artist to glitz it up. When people visit it but don’t come back, the third iteration is done by a writer or IA or usability person. When it starts to work as a result, marketing takes notice, subsumes the whole process, and goes back to the artist for the next iteration, destroying much of the value that had been created in the previous version. Repeat ad infinitum.

    Maybe in five or ten years we’ll be at a point where there’s no excuse for bad websites. Right now, turf wars is all the excuse you need. Come to think of it, given the persistence of turf wars over the years, I think bad websites will always be with us.

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