Don't forget to design the interface!

by Philip Webb on 24 November 2011

Here’s an interesting website design issue that I came across the other day. I wonder how many companies make the error of seemingly putting internal business process and requirements ahead of the needs of their customers when designing interaction points?

I tried using the Aer Lingus website to check in online and print a boarding pass. It sounds simple enough: Provide a booking reference, identify yourself, confirm that the retrieved flight details are correct, check in and print the pass. But the process was presented in such a confusing and alienating way, that it felt more like a puzzle. It is so enraging and amazing to me that, in an era where we are bombarded with promises of exponential improvements in technology, something so simple as checking in to a flight early can be made to feel like unlocking the secrets of the Da Vinci code.

After providing the reference, departing airport and email address, passengers are presented with this page:

It’s not even immediately apparent that there are two alternative calls to action, let alone why there needs to be and what the difference between the two might be. It’s reasonable to assume that passengers won’t bother reading the War and Peace style text, and will instead plump for the ‘web check in’ button. But if they are trying to check in before the 30-hour limit, they must first choose their seats (not necessary if you check in between 30 and 2 hours before the flight). There isn’t necessarily a connection in passengers’ minds between choosing seats (which sounds optional) and checking in but they can only choose seats via the ‘advance check-in’, and they have to pay – none of which is clear.

Once they have chosen the correct fork in the road through trial and error, they’re presented with a series of unclear and unnecessary hoop-jumping steps that must be completed in their entirety for each leg of a return journey. For example, having checked in for the outward leg, users can click back to the screen shown below and choose the return leg airport. But pressing ‘continue’ here does nothing. It doesn’t even generate an error message. Instead, users have to start all over again from scratch.

Presumably this ‘design’ isn’t deliberate, but it did make me wonder why web processes like this are still so prevalent.

Clearly, the check-in process in this example is just driven by internal business processes, the constraints of which are of no interest to passengers. Passengers’ heads are filled with many more pressing concerns such as all the travel arrangements either side of a flight, baggage restrictions, what to pack etc etc. Checking in online should be so easy as to be utterly unmemorable. The whole idea of it is tomake it more convenient than checking in at the airport. So why isn’t it?

The functionality of these pages has been built around only what the process needs. The interface is purely an afterthought.

Here is an illustrative example: imagine there’s a house you must enter in order to achieve some task.

  • The builders have built a secure house with all the rooms you must visit to successfully achieve the task. But the house has no windows and no doors.
  • Only after the featureless brick walls have been completed, do the builders suddenly realise there’s no way for people to access the rooms inside. So they take a sledgehammer and knock holes through to all the necessary rooms. And that’s it. They’ve supplied access. Job done.
  • Now imagine people with a need for access. They walk up the garden path and must search around the whole building for a way in. Perhaps there are several doors, or none. The order the rooms are to be visited in isn’t clear. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

You wouldn’t build a house like this. But web processes like this are ten-a-penny.

I live in hope that one day we will look back at these experiences and laugh. Perhaps in a nostalgic way we’ll even miss them, like the websites that we occasionally stumble across in the 21st century thatremind us of the way the web used to be. Or maybe we’ll still be struggling with processes that are presented as IQ tests, it’s just that we’ll struggle with them on ever-more advanced handheld devices!

Have you come across any great interface design, or any more terrible ones that really got in the way of you doing what you want to? Let us know in the comments below!

House with no windows image thanks to dphclub

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