Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘web design

Redesigning for the worse / Blogroll update

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Last October, I added the Daily Sceptic to my blogroll. Today, I have decided* to remove it again. This in part due to a lower relevance and (my subjective feeling of) less, and less valuable, content as the COVID hysteria, countermeasures, whatnot have subsided.** The main reason, however, is a disastrous redesign.

*I do not currently have access to my WordPress account, and there might be a delay before the actual removal takes place. (This due to various notebook crashes and reinstalls, as discussed in earlier texts. To post on WordPress, I only need my email account.)

**Should they flare up again, I might revisit the decision.

To first look at the big picture:

I have been on the Internet since 1994, and it seems that web design tendentially has grown worse, year by year, that almost every individual redesign of a website makes it worse than before,* and that bigger organizations and organizations with more money tend to have worse websites than smaller ones.

*Indeed, this is not the first time that I abandon a site due to a misguided redesign.

A key issue here might be that web design is best kept simple, while there is a drift towards the more complex, e.g. because the more complex might, in some shallow sense, look fancier (at the cost of usability), that a design firm might be hard-pressed to charge money for something less fancy (even if more usable), that an executive/manager/product-manager* might push for the more fancy looking, etc., etc. As a special case, there seems to be a great unwillingness to accept the “default look” of HTML, which leads not only to excessive CSS-customizations but also, often, a reduced readability or usability, be it because pages from different web-sites look unnecessarily different** or because the default look was superior to begin with.***

*As a software insider, I can attest that many of the problems that the outsiders blame on the software/web/whatnot developers are actually caused by others. Developers usually have little say on topics like “user experience”, “look and feel”, what workflows are available and how they are structured, etc. (Which is a shame, because the developers are often better qualified and more insightful on such topics than those who do make the decisions.) Then there is the complication that the visual design of e.g. a website or a software is often done by others than those who implement the design.

**Which, sadly, appears to be seen as an advantage by the decision makers: Who cares about usability? The main thing is that we can push our unique corporate look/identity/whatnot! We need to stand out! We need to be unique! Besides, the visitors are not supposed to read and be informed, they are supposed to look at pretty pictures and be impressed!

***Fiddling around with the look of various control elements is particularly ill advised. For instance, some modern designs make it hard to determine whether a checkbox is actually checked, because no check mark is present. (Does that non-standard, specific to this one website, change of color mean that the checkbox is now checked or that it is now unchecked?) One extraordinarily idiotic website (I do not remember which one) had designed a radio-button to look like a checkbox.

A particular sub-issue could be that some individual designers want to experiment with various features, display their technical skills, whatnot, rather than favoring usability.

How to do good web design? Keep it simple, stupid!* Focus on readability and usability, not looks. Be user-driven, not design-driven. Do not make assumptions about the user (especially, that he is an idiot) or his wishes—ask him. Etc.

*This “KISS” principle applies very much to software development (and many other areas) in general. It is often one of the first things taught—and one of the first things forgotten. (And, possibly, is rarely taught to non-developers, e.g. product managers.)

Looking at the Daily Sceptic in detail:

Between my discovery of the site and the redesign, the main-page layout consisted of a long list of entries, somewhat like on a regular blog, most of which contained either own contents or a lengthy/article-sized quote from elsewhere (with some minor own comments), while a once-a-day entry contained a “news roundup” with a list with links to and one-sentence descriptions of texts from various other websites and news services. (This “news roundup” was (is?) the main source of value.)

The site was by no means perfect, but except for three things, this worked very well and was highly usable. All three things would have been easy to fix within the old design, and the second was easy for the user to work around (once wise the problem):

  1. The site had not made up its mind whether, for the individual entries/pages/whatnots, it should follow the “give the entire text in the list, with the option of opening it in a separate page to, e.g., give a comment” paradigm or the “give a taster in the list, and let those interested open the full text in a separate page” paradigm.

    Instead, the site combined the disadvantages of both systems, by giving a long-but-incomplete version of the text in the list. Those wanting to skim forward to open interesting seeming texts in separate pages were hampered by the length; those wanting to read the text without using separate pages could not do so, because the whole text was not present.

  2. The internal system, contrary to most blogging platforms, seemed to have two pages for the same text, one reflecting the abbreviated contents of the list and one reflecting the full text.

    In order to get the full text, the user had to scroll down to the end and click “Read More”, after which he was lead to the full version. However, what most experienced users are likely to do was to read a paragraph or two and then, if interested, click on the heading. (Or, on a site with a sufficient proportion of interesting texts, click on the heading in a blanket manner.) Unlike other platforms, however, this did not bring the user to the full version, but only the abbreviated version already seen in the list.

    (During my first few visits, I was highly annoyed to find, a “Read More” at the end of what should have been the full text, forcing me to another page visit. With time, I just scrolled down to the “Read More” of the original list in the first place.)

    Moreover, the lengthy/article-sized quotes ended with a “Worth reading in full” and a link to the original text. If the text is worth reading in full, why am I not? Either the actual full text should have been provided or I should have been linked to the full text to begin with.* This half-measure just wastes time. (Also see excursion.)

    *The semi-pointlessness of this approach is demonstrated by the same text often occurring both as a quote and as an entry in the news roundup.

    (Again, highly annoying during my first few visits, but something that I later worked around by just scrolling down to the “Worth reading in full”, while ignoring the Daily Sceptic’s version entirely.)

  3. Like many other sites, the comments were not immediately accessible even on the full version of a text. This is a near incomprehensible error, especially with an eye at how common it is. Show the bloody comments by default!

    Specifically, do so without a requirement to register and/or log in. Such a requirement might be acceptable for writing comments, but not for reading them.

The new design?* So bad that I will stay clear of the site for the time being:

*As observed during today’s (2020-06-06) visit. The statements need not be true at the time of reading.

  1. That very useful list is gone.
  2. The news roundup has been moved to a separate page and, it appears, a separate page per day, implying that I cannot just go to the same page every day, but have to go to the main page and pick out whatever the current day’s page is.
  3. The (new) main page is poorly designed, wastes space, and has replaced the original list with a much shorter two column list.

    The “shorter” implies that further pages must be visited to find all entries of the day (or since the last visit)—which is not possible without JavaScript. At the end of the page there is a “Load More” button, which should (a) have been a link, (b) should have loaded* more. Instead, it unnecessarily uses JavaScript to do something or other.** General rule: Never, ever use JavaScript for something that can be done with a regular HTML link.

    *Or, better, switched to a “page 2”. I have not investigated the details of Daily Sceptic here, but a common issue with other sites that use formulations like “load more” is that the new page begins with a repetition of the original contents, for a major waste of time—I want more contents, not the same contents again.

    **Presumably, to load more, but I will not activate JavaScript for any random site—especially one with foreign and, therefore, untrusted-even-should-I-trust-the-site contents. Correspondingly, I cannot test this.

    The two columns are a worsening relative a straight list, and columns are usually a bad idea in HTML to begin with—an attempt to imitate a paper design without a feel for the actual medium. (Generally, adopting something from the one medium to another can be highly sub-optimal. Even in good cases, adaption (note spelling) is necessary and often not even that gives a good result.)

  4. The comment issue has not been fixed. Arguably, cf. below, it has been made worse.
  5. On the upside, the site has now made up its mind on the two aforementioned browsing paradigms, settling on short descriptions with a full page view. The “Read More” issue seems to have disappeared as a side-effect. However, the “Worth reading in full” issue remains. Indeed, it has grown worse, because I cannot now jump from the main page directly to the original article. Instead, I have to first visit the Daily Sceptic’s version, and then jump to the original article.
  6. There are now three (!) highly intrusive requests for donations at the bottom of each (!) page.* By all means, ask for donations if you need money (running a popular website can be expensive—I understand that), but be polite and discreet—no-one likes to have a begging hand shoved in his face every two minutes.

    *There might be some discussion whether this should be considered design or content. As they seem to appear without variation on all pages, I consider them design for the purposes of this text. Similar points might apply elsewhere.

    This is the more annoying, as the site provides comparatively little own contents. The main benefit was always the news roundup with contents from other parties; and of the other entries, only roughly half were own contents, with the other, and often more interesting, half being the lengthy/article-sized quotes from other parties.

    Moreover, the third of these intrusive requests contains an inexcusable “We ask for a minimum donation of £5 if you’d like to make a comment or post in our Forums.”:

    Not only is this amount utterly and entirely out of proportion,* but the site is effectively punishing visitors for contributing value to the site.

    *Really, £5! Compare this with what can be had for the same amount elsewhere.

    (Generally, it is absurd, utterly absurd, how many websites seem to think that they are doing their visitors a favor by allowing them to contribute, while it is often these contributions that give the site value in the first place. This obviously in forums, many wikis, and sites like Youtube, but at least sometimes on other websites, blogs, whatnot. Steve Sailer is, again, a great example of a blog where almost all the value comes from the commenters.)

  7. According to an announcement there will now be advertising. Their choice, but it will worsen the “reader experience” and it will make me even less likely to visit.

Excursion on general technologies and trends:
I am often tempted to blame such problems on developments in technology, e.g. increased use of JavaScript (should be minimized) and CSS “position: fixed” (should never have been invented and should never be used). However, the Web has a long history of idiocies and over-use. For instance, Flash was long a problem, but is now almost gone. For instance, one of the early banes of web design was frames, and they have been very rare for at least a decade, maybe even two.

Moreover, at the end of the day, technologies can make it easier to make poor designs, but the blame ultimately rests on the designer (and/or whomever gives the orders).

A partial exception to this is responsive web design (and, maybe, adaptive web design), which pretends to solve a problem that does not exist,* and causes enormous increases in efforts, complexity, JavaScript use, etc. Another partial exception is a drive to design exclusively or primarily for smartphones, which often leads to pages that look like shit in and wastes space for a desktop browser, while, typically, not being very impressive on a smartphone either.**

*Or, rather, would not exist, if the design was solid in the first place. Design well, and the exact same page will look good in both a desktop browser and a smartphone browser without dynamic adaptions. Indeed, in the days of yore, where “mobile versions” were common, a flawed redesign of the “desktop version” often moved me to use the “mobile version” on the desktop too—as it was usually better designed for desktop use than the redesigned desktop version…

**Yes, there is an apparent contradiction of the previous footnote. From memory, I would say that the old “mobile versions” used a look-and-feel which was simply a less complex version of a regular desktop version (cf. the above comments on keeping it simple, etc.), while the modern try to additionally use an Android- and/or iPhone-inspired look-and-feel, including ideas like removing links in favor of big buttons or button-like constructs and preferring many low-information pages/screens/whatnot to fewer high-information dittos. (As an aside, I would welcome it, if the smartphone OSes looked and behaved more like desktops, to the degree that screen space and lack of keyboard/mouse allows it.)

Excursion on earlier writings:
I have a number of older texts dealing with both web design and software development on my website proper.

Excursion on “Worth reading in full”:
To quote and discuss portions of a text, in conjuncture with a “Worth reading in full” (or something to the same effect), is not wrong. I have certainly done so myself. In the case of the Daily Sceptic, there are at least three problems: (a) that this is done on a very large scale, (b) that the link to the original only comes at the very end,* and (c) that the own comments, analysis, whatnot are small in comparison to the quoted text—and usually quite superficial. There simply was not much point in reading the Daily Sceptic’s version over going straight to the source.

*Without checking, I suspect that I have always or almost always linked at the beginning of such texts—and I certainly will try to remember it for the future.

Excursion on utter idiocies:
To illustrate how far some idiots can go, there actually are websites that try to impress the user by playing music when he visits, or accompanies the main page with a spoken message. (This disregarding both that most users will not hear the music/message in the first place, that those who do might be pissed off, and that third parties might be disturbed.) A very common problem is the use of overly large, utterly uninformative, and constantly switching images, which do little but annoy the visitor. (This as part of the deliberate design. Advertisements can have a very similar effect, but are a separate issue.) Generally, overly large and utterly uninformative images, even when not switching, appear to be a staple of corporate web design.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2022 at 4:09 pm

The struggling author: Amateurish Amazon and follow-up on construction noise

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Another shitty day: It appears that the construction works are here again—and, again, without any notification or possibility to judge the size of the problem. Indeed, there is now scaffolding along the house wall, which could imply something very major and something not perpetrated by an individual apartment owner or resident but the actual building management.

Fortunately, the disturbances started in the mid-afternoon, and I could spend enough time walking to come back home after they had stopped. However, firstly, I have no idea how the future will look, and, secondly, the city is almost dead due to COVID-restrictions, meaning that there is very little to actually do, except walking (per se).

To conclude the day, I decided to finally open that Amazon KDP account that I will need in the mid- or long term. This was a frustrating and annoying experience. A partial summary (even at the risk of exceeding the policy for this closed-ish blog, but I need to unload the frustration):

  1. The interface asks for an email address, sends a confirmation code to that address, and awaits entry of that code.

    OK.

  2. The interface ADDITIONALLY asks for mobile phone number, sends a second confirmation code there, and awaits entry of that code.

    Not OK.

    Firstly, it must not be a prerequisite to have a cell phone to participate in various non–cell-phone activities. (Indeed, I have gone through quite long stretches without one and it is pure coincidence that I have a working cell-phone number at the time of writing.) Secondly, email confirmation should have been enough. Thirdly, Amazon claims that it would later be possible to opt out of cell phone verifications, but because it has to be activated the first time around, Amazon can now steal data that I would very much like to keep absent, e.g. to avoid abusive SMS/“text” spam. (Note that Amazon has no legitimate reason to know my telephone number, unlike e.g. my street address and email, for the current purposes. I have yet to investigate whether the opt-out claim holds true.)

    Moreover, the implementation was utterly incompetent, by repeatedly* resetting the country to the U.S. Here my explicit choice of Germany should have been kept; and the original default should have been Germany, too, as my address was German and I was clearly accessing the site from Germany. (In my recollection, but I might be wrong, Amazon even used German as the interface language.)

    *I tried to get past this step, as no mention of the reason had been made (itself a poor UI decision), by first entering a landline number, which is less susceptible to abuse. As the claim that a SMS had been sent was given after entry, I re-tried it with a cell-phone number, including (unthinkingly) a leading “0”. As no SMS arrived, I tried again, removing the “0”, for a total of three attempts.

  3. A highly annoying, moving CAPTCHA needed to be answered.

    At best dubious, as there seems to be little reason to assume that someone goes to the immense effort of handling automatic confirmations per email and SMS for a purpose like creating an Amazon account. (Indeed, with this level of overall stringency, it might have been better to simply send a postal confirmation code and accept the temporary delay in exchange for one single confirmation.)

    Moreover, the implementation was awful, including crossing the border to where it becomes hard even for a human to complete the confirmation. (I needed two attempts, myself.)

  4. I proceeded to enter the user account, an act apparently considered a separate log-in, despite following directly after the account-creation process, which required a second SMS confirmation.

    Not OK.

    Firstly, this particular type of two-factor authentication is very dubious in general,* increasing the efforts needed for trivial tasks disproportionately. (But note mentions of opt-out above.) Secondly, specifically in this situation, it was entirely redundant and my previous SMS confirmation should have been considered enough.

    *In fact, the two main scenarios where it is needed is (a) with idiot users who pick poor passwords (I use random and automatically generated ones) or have sloppy local security (I do not), (b) with idiot service providers who have too many flaws in their own systems or allow password hashes to get out (or, worse, have actually stored plain-text passwords). The risk of e.g. a snooper stealing a password exists, but is a lot smaller. Moreover, the (partially false) sense of security created by two-factor authentication can worsen the problem with (a); moreover, when more and more users access the Internet per cell phone, the value of this specific type of two-factor authentication is drastically reduced.

  5. (My account was marked as incomplete (as expected), and I proceeded to complete the data. Note that the below items might be in the wrong order or be incomplete. It does, in particular, not include several amateurish oddities with the workflow and ambiguities concerning what-button-does-what.)
  6. Address fields included an empty field for my telephone number, which was mandatory.

    Not OK.

    Firstly, my phone number is plainly and simply not Amazon’s business. Secondly, as a mobile number had already been entered, this should have been the pre-filled default.

  7. For my bank information, separate entries of IBAN, BIC, and name-of-bank were needed.

    Not OK.

    This shows a fundamentally flawed approach, as the IBAN is intended to serve as the sole account identification. Requesting a separate BIC is amateur hour. (This unlike the “old” German system, where a BLZ identified the bank, and an account number the account within that bank.) The bank name might be acceptable as a safety check, but better systems fill it out based on the IBAN.* Moreover, it should be a near given that data like account numbers are copy-and-pasted, which would either make the check unnecessary (data is guaranteed to be correct) or pointless (if, highly unlikely, the original is faulty, repeated copy-and-paste procedures will not help).**

    *Here Amazon might be excused as an international operation.

    **However, other checks, like “is the IBAN of the right length” are still justified, to catch e.g. an incompletely copied IBAN.

  8. I was led to the fill-out-the-U.S.-tax-excemption area.

    Not OK.

    A reasonable operation should have made sure that such nonsense is not necessary, e.g. through use of a non-U.S. subsidiary. A smaller company (or one, like Barnes & Nobles, highly U.S. centric) might have deserved a pass, but Amazon is one of the largest and most international companies in the world.

    (But I was already aware of the need to do this to avoid an absurd-for-any-European tax deduction of 30 % in favor of the U.S. (!) IRS, and had indeed even prepared by finding my German TIN in advance.)

  9. Required further fields for the preceding item included address fields that had already been entered.

    Not OK.

    Already entered data should be taken as default values.

  10. My German address contains an umlaut (a “ü”, to be specific). This was rejected when I tried to proceed.*

    *I am a little uncertain whether this was only with the tax fields or already with the main address fields. Below, I assume tax fields. If not, it is far worse.

    Not OK.

    Even assuming that this restriction was posed by the U.S. IRS, the check should have been performed during entry and a pre-filled value with a suggested correction provided and/or the data incompatibility should have been mentioned explicitly and up-front.

  11. As I re-submitted, post-adaption, there was an apparent error text, which read merely that “This field has been corrected.” (or very similar), leaving me uncertain whether further action was necessary. I tried to save again, and was brought back to the same error message. (The page automatically centered on the “error”.) I checked the top and the bottom of the page, in vain, and tried a third time, just in case. I was returned to the same message. I now went through the page in detail and found, a little further down, but outside of the area displayed by the browser after Amazon’s deliberate focus, a request that I confirm the correctness of the correction.

    Not OK.

    The page should have made crystal clear that further action was needed and what action. (Note that the idiotic focus and choice of layout sabotaged this.) Moreover, as I had corrected the field, there should have been no further assumption of error than with any other data entry, making the inquiry/error/whatnot redundant.

Now let us see what future problems occur, including (I very strongly suspect) unsolicited and highly unwanted emails and/or text messages.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 23, 2021 at 12:47 am

Concluding observations around eCommerce

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Preamble: The below, minus an excursion, was written some days after [1], and was intended to round out the discussions in that series of texts. Unfortunately, various delivery issues ensued, resulting in another text series. A considerable delay in finishing and publishing resulted from related and unforeseen “real world” efforts and the time for these additional texts. The below is a polishing of the state at the time of the interruption, possibly without some sub-topics that I had not yet included (I do not remember my intentions), and with the section on advertising et al. well short of the intended scope. Relative time references are still based on the original time of writing—not the time of polishing and publishing.

There is an enormous amount to write around the topic of eCommerce—most of it negative, including poor web-design, a customer despising attitude, and absolute amateurity. While I will try not to do this writing, I have a few observations to conclude my recent discussions:

  1. These issues do not just cause problems for the customers. On the contrary, there is a significant loss of business involved for those who have too slow or buggy websites, do not provide reasonable payment methods, try to dictate too one-sided terms, …* This in form both of customers who interrupt their (own) attempted purchases or product searches and of negative “word of mouth”.

    *I am tempted to explicitly mention deliveries here, especially in light of my experiences between draft and polish. See an excursion below, however.

    Note that this applies not just to problems with no upside, e.g. a slow website; it equally includes those with a purpose, e.g. attempts to reduce non-payment for delivered goods. Whether the latter, as a specific example, outweighs the lost custom will depend on the individual circumstances; however, I do have a strong impression* that the aspect of loss and the opportunity cost of these attempts are not considered sufficiently. Moreover, when the attempts are too poorly implemented, the loss will very often be greater than the gain. (For instance, to let a customer find his products, put them in his shopping cart, add an account, enter all address-and-whatnot information, and only then to tell him “no, you look like a risky customer—advance payment only” or even “[…]—take a hike”, will risk considerable ill will.)

    *Based not only on my own experiences as a customer and what I have read, but also from inside knowledge from working at e.g. an online auction-house and an “ePayment” service.

    As usual, those not in the naive mainstream are hit worse than others, e.g. in that many websites offer PayPal and see their job as done at that point—but, considering PayPal’s track-record and reputation, many informed users will deliberately not have a PayPal account.

  2. Buying online is often more effort* than buying in stores—and much more likely to fail**. This is quite contrary to the original claims around eCommerce as a great time saver and convenience. Factor in the offline advantages of being able to investigate an item in person*** and having immediate possession after the purchase,**** and offline is often the better bet. Online can still score through a larger selection or better prices, but this is rarely enough.

    *Including e.g. the need to enter considerable amounts of information or create accounts even for a one-time purchase. Queuing and travel can still result in even larger time waste; however, these can be avoided by at least city people by going to the store when in the area for other reasons and choosing the appropriate time of day,

    **E.g. through errors around payment methods.

    ***Most notably with clothes and similar, but the range of products where this is an advantage is enormous. Consider e.g. test-typing on a keyboard before buying it, reading a chapter from a book, checking how something fits in the hand, looking at a decoration in real life (not just a photo of it), etc.

    ****Note that this is not just a matter of a delivery delay through an online order. Other factors include the risks of non-delivery, of delivery of faulty items, and of not having the items delivered to one’s home—just to the local post office, DHL subsidiary, or whatnot. (An exception to this disadvantage is, obviously, when the goods would be delivered even when bought in a store, which might be the case for e.g. furniture.)

    In the past, eCommerce might have had the considerable advantage of easier price comparisons (with the competition); today, most people have smart-phones and can compare prices even when in a physical store.

    Paradoxically, eCommerce was better in the past—through better websites, a less degenerated attitude towards the customers, and greater ease of payment. I note e.g. that twenty years ago I could easily* pay with a credit card online—today, it is a fifty–fifty proposition. Indeed, back then, eCommerce was the sole reason that I even had a credit card… (Note that credit-card acceptance was very rare in physical German stores back then, and is still unimpressive by e.g. U.S. standards.)

    *To the point that it was too easy. I can recall my first few credit card payments, where I entered my credit-card number and a faulty “valid to”—and still saw my order processed correctly. (I had no idea what “valid to” was, guessed incorrectly that it was a some upper limit on the individual payment set by the customer, and entered a value of the current or following month—and because no-one complained, I did not research the topic further.) The institution of 3D-secure, however, is too much—the immense increase in effort needed and the many technical failures are not in proportion to the gains.

  3. The commercialization of the Internet has made it much harder to get information on certain topics, because search listings that once were dominated by pages intending to inform are now dominated by pages intending to sell. With a bit of luck, one of the first links will be to the corresponding Wikipedia entry, but Wikipedia will not include e.g. forum discussions, will not always cover a topic with enough depth, and will rarely have information on individual products.

    For instance, I just made a “startpage” search for “coffee maker”.* The first link is to Target, the second to Amazon, and the third to a review** site. The rest have a similar proportion of sellers and reviewers. Wikipedia is not present and neither is, for instance, the highly informative home page of a private coffee enthusiast***.

    *For purposes of demonstration. In a real search, I would almost certainly, depending on my intentions, have gone directly to Wikipedia or added some further search terms (e.g. “principle of function” or “forum discussion”).

    **See below for more on review sites.

    ***I cannot guarantee that such a page exist, but it does seem highly likely. There have definitely been other searches where I have found corresponding pages in the past.

  4. Another manifestation of the commercialization is how the web is drowning in comparison sites. In theory, these might be a good thing; however, in reality, most are near useless and the sheer number takes space away from more valuable sites—do we really need 1001 different sites to tell us what coffee maker to buy?

    Common problems include rankings that are bought; a too large focus on the best-selling brands/models/whatnot;* descriptions that read like advertising material (and might sometimes be provided by the manufacturer…); too little information and too much focus on making it easy for the visitor to buy the product;** and product details that are only available through a link to another website (e.g. the manufacturer’s or Amazon’s). In a twist, other comparison sites appear to want to prevent the reader from reaching the manufacturer’s site,*** by not linking there at all (or only in well-hidden places) and by providing lower-value own information (e.g. in that a link on “Braun” does not lead to Braun’s homepage, only to a local page with a profile of Braun).

    *With the side-effects that smaller brands see their chances diminished and that customers miss the opportunity to find superior products out of the mainstream.

    **There is nothing wrong with earning provisions, but the blatant manner some sites go about it is inexcusable. To boot, this gives incentives both to not write negative things even about poor products and to focus on more expensive products. More generally, the wish for provisions leads to a large number of suboptimal links from the visitors point of view, e.g. in that many blogs that mention a book do not link to a Wikipedia entry on the book, the author’s homepage, or similar—instead they link to Amazon…

    ***If the user leaves to the “wrong” website, he might end up buying somewhere where the comparison site does not receive a provision…

    This entirely apart from “natural” problems with comparisons (e.g. different tastes), more general Web problems (e.g. poor web design), truly general problems (e.g. low competence), etc.

  5. A third the excessive amounts of advertising of various kinds, including so intrusive adverts that surfers install ad blockers, search and review results that are bought, and, of course, spam.

Excursion on merchants and poor deliveries:
While poor deliveries hurt the customers the most, the merchants are not impervious to negative effects, e.g. through canceled orders and negative word-of-mouth. The major hitch on their end is that there is little that they can do in most cases, because the delivery service is to blame. If the delivery service screws up, what can the merchant do? In the end, the sole realistic recourse might be to switch delivery service—which will often amount to replacing the one cheating/negligent/incompetent/whatnot partner with another… To boot, while research can help with ruling out the worst-of-the-worst (notably, DHL), it will not necessarily give helpful information, because the problems often vary from area to area and time to time, often down to the level of the individual employee or sub-contractor, and does so both on the sender’s and the recipient’s end. The merchant can now see scenarios where deliveries to Cologne work well and those to Düsseldorf do not, or where deliveries to Cologne worked well last year and are a horror show this year.

That said, the merchant should try to minimize the risks and complications as far as possible, even if it makes deliveries a bit more expensive. This most notably through not splitting a single order into multiple deliveries “for logistic reasons”, unless the customer has explicitly* allowed it.

*As in e.g. “please do split the deliveries so that the projected delay of two weeks for item A does not delay item B, too”—but not as in e.g. implicit-consent-through-fine-print.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 1, 2019 at 9:08 pm

WordPress and its user-hostile administration area

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And don’t you believe it: The morons from WordPress still managed to introduce links where they do not belong, despite use of quotation marks.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2019 at 11:08 am

WordPress and its user-hostile administration area

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As I tried to refresh a page from my WordPress account earlier today, I found that I had been logged out.* More specifically, I was forcefully lead to (what I assume was) a log-in page that simply did not work or show anything useful, but which complained about a lack of JavaScript. (No, activating JavaScript did not help.) After digging around, I found a log-in page that did work, logged in—and found myself in some version of the administration area that did not even slightly resemble what I was used to, and which simply did not work—with or without JavaScript activated. Problems included incomplete displays, “my sites” simply not being found, and (browser-side) warnings about a possible XSS** attack by a “doubleclick.net” address***.

*Having a dedicated user-account and browser for WordPress, I have no qualms about never logging out manually. Automatic log-outs, on the other hand, are so rare that I cannot even recall the previous time that it happened (or whether I had similar problems back then).

**Cross-site scripting: Roughly speaking, an attempt to cause mischief for a user by including JavaScript from one site into another, in order to circumvent the user’s and browser’s security controls/checks/awareness/whatnot.

***Presumably, a part of Google’s advertising efforts that still carries the name of the former “DoubleClick” brand. The alarm is likely a false positive to the degree that this is almost certainly is not caused by an illegal activity; however, (a) users are still better off without it, e.g. for privacy reasons, (b) the integration into the WordPress pages is obviously not done sufficiently well.

After wasting five to ten minutes trying this-and-that, I contemplated simply foregoing WordPress entirely and effective immediately*, but resorted to a last ditch attempt: One of my old tabs contained a page from the (familiar) admin area. I copy-and-past-ed** it into a new tab, and things suddenly worked as they should.

*WordPress sucks, and I have long-standing plans to move away anyway. However, time constraints and the many other things that I do has postponed this ever again.

**Just re-loading would likely have worked equally well, but keeping the old tab intact gave me a better chance at a second attempt, should something go wrong.

The difference is likely that this link already led to the blog specific admin area, which still works as it should; while what was served after log-in was a user account admin area.* Should the above happen to you (or me, at a future time): Look at the URL. If it begins with “https://wordpress.com/me”, you are probably stuck in the user level area, and you should try to get to the blog area, which will begin with “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/”**. The “dashboard” of the blog administration can then be found under “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/wp-admin/index.php”**, from where other parts of the administration can be found. (In all cases, with reservations for future changes.)

*There can be more than one blog associated with each user account.

**For my main WordPress blog. Please substitute your own blog name/address as appropriate. Also see excursion below.

Excursion on WordPress, incompetent handling of post-by-email, and how this can influence a text:
I have written repeatedly of how WordPress handles post-by-email incompetently, e.g. through introduction of artificial links. This text provides a good example: without the quotation marks around “doubleclick.net” above, it might have been mangled into “http://doubleclick.net” and turned into a link, which is not only contrary to the purpose of use above, but could also be highly confusing to the reader. Knowing of this issue, I resorted to add quotation marks where I would not normally have used them.

The use of e.g. “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/” above is yet another example of why WordPress handles links poorly: I do not intend to link—only to make a statement of how a link would begin. Indeed, going directly to this address would show the published blog—not the administration area. (But here, I would have used quotation marks anyway, because I discuss strings.) Further, “https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com” would normally have called for a use of place-holders, e.g. in that I had replaced “michaeleriksson” with “[your blog]”. I refrained from doing so, because I see at least a risk* of mangling.

*I have made good experiences with quoting, which seems to protect the text, but if I find an exception I would need to research a work-around, edit, and/or re-publish the text, which would cost me time and energy. To boot, this would involve a delay and inconsistent texts being sent to subscribers. Better then to take the safe road.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2019 at 11:04 am

Follow-up II: Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design II

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As a further follow-up to recent writings ([1], [2], [3]) I have to categorically advice to stay away from Cyberport. What has transpired here is so Kafkaesque as to stretch the believable.

I placed my order on the 26th March, received an email request for choice of alternate payment methods on the 27th, and immediately replied. After having received no reaction by the 29th, I sent a reminder and additionally set a deadline for the 1st of April. On the 1st, I received an email incorrectly claiming that I had not replied to the request from the 27th, with no indication that my reminder from the 29th would be known either. I immediately replied, quoting my previous emails and requested an immediate resolution.

Today (i.e. the 2nd), I received what amounts to the same email again—and again with no acknowledgment of any of my replies and reminders.

I note that I have had no email problems on my end, including no error messages, no bounces, no indications that other recipients would not receive their emails, …, and must conclude that Cyberport has a severe email problem on its end, is unable to perform even the most basic customer service actions, and/or is deliberately* doing something inexcusable.

*I tend to apply Hanlon’s Razor, but it is noteworthy that the 1st of April is involved. Combine this with an individual employee with an inexcusable attitude, and it is not impossible.

I have now unambiguously rescinded my order.

Excursion on computers:
In parallel, I have looked for alternative providers. Apart from the problems of finding OS-free computers and an online store with reasonable payment options, I am puzzled by the current price and “bang for the buck” levels. It has been quite some time since I last followed price developments, but there does not appear to be a significant price advantage for desktop computers anymore (despite the savings on the display, keyboard, whatnot, and from the lesser need to keep things small). Very many systems sell for absolutely astronomical prices*, probably because the desktop market has been skewed towards very high-end gaming computers. The cheaper systems, on the other hand, have considerably worse** specifications than I would have expected from the standards and trends from, say, five years back (when I was much more up-to-date).

*Often upwards of two thousand Euro, quite often upwards of one thousand Euro—are we back in the 1990s?

**Many systems have dual-cores below 3 GHz. None of the cheaper systems (and far from all of the more expensive) have 16 GB of RAM, many fail to have even 8 GB, and I have even seen some with a measly 2 (!) GB. As a comparison, my 2012 desktop had 2 GB, and was not a very expensive one. By Moore’s Law, I would have expected 16 and 32 GB to dominate even among the lower end systems.

Excursion on shelves:
After Bauhaus’ failure, I visited some other websites, and found that of competitor Hornbach to be much more user-friendly. It, too, suffers from excessive reloading, but is so much faster that this is acceptable (but still not ideal). I have replaced my Bauhaus order with a roughly equivalent one from Hornbach. (The payment options were similarly weak; however, I decided to risk prepayment, seeing that Hornbach, unlike e.g. Cyberport, is well-known, “brick and mortar”, and has a history that goes back decades.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 2, 2019 at 1:47 pm

Follow-up: Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design II

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I recently wrote of my negative experiences with Bauhaus [1] and eCommerce, including the inexplicable payment problems.

I have now received an email answer from Bauhaus to my request for a solution to enable the purchase despite the technical problems caused by Bauhaus. This answer is depressing and shows a complete disregard for customer interests, leaving me with a grand-total of possible two hours* of time wasted with nothing to show for it—and, yes, I was too optimistic in ascribing the behavior to an unintended technical problem.

*Including the phase two weeks ago described in [1], but not including the time spent writing texts. The single order that failed might have taken around an hour, including browsing the catalog and working with the abysmally slow website.

I will certainly never use Bauhaus again, not even the physical stores, unless it backs down from this customer-hostile stance. Factoring in the extreme slowness of the website, I can only encourage others to avoid it. I note that Bauhaus’ website has by now cost it the chance at orders over thousands of Euro of products and services (most of it relating to events in [1] prior to the current order). The issue is the more annoying, because I basically had already decided against using Bauhaus for any of the intended orders (cf. [1])—I made the mistake of still ordering the shelves from Bauhaus and was immediately burnt.

To quote pertinent parts*:

*A few minor manual corrections were necessary after copy-and-paste, since Bauhaus appears to have used non-standard characters or encoding. Reservations for undetected problems caused by this.

Bei jeder Bestellung erfolgt eine automatisierte handelsübliche Prüfung der Adress-und Bestelldaten, auf die wir keinen Einfluss haben.

Die angebotene Zahlart ist abhängig von verschiedenen Faktoren.

Abhängig von Warenwert, Größe und Gewicht der Artikel sowie der Kategorie der Artikel stellt Ihnen der Online-Shop eine Auswahl an Zahlarten zur Verfügung.

Wir behalten uns nach dieser Prüfung vor, bestimmte Zahlungsarten im Rahmen des Bestellvorgangs auszuschließen.

Translation (with reservation for the correctness of terms of trade):

For every order, an automatic customary-in-the-trade (“handelsübliche”) check of address-and [hyphen present in original] order data is made, on which we have no influence

The offered payment methods depend on different factors.

Depending on the value of the goods, size and weight of the article and the category of the article, the online-shop gives you a selection of payment types.

We reserve the right to, after this check, remove specific payment types from the order transaction (“Bestellvorgang”).

This might have been acceptable in principle, had the payment options not already been offered. Filtering out the options before the user makes a choice could be OK, but doing so after he has already started choosing, and then choosing based on faulty premises, is inexcusable. To boot, there was no prior information that this might take place and no obvious means to make a preliminary check—to avoid spending all that time waiting on and searching on the uselessly slow website.

Further, either I was filtered out based on flawed criteria* or a very large proportion of the users will meet similar problems. I note that while some type of credit or similar check is not unusual, it is usually very explicit** and to speak of “customary” (“[handels]üblich”) for whatever checks Bauhaus used is extremely dubious.

*My credit rating should be flawless and not an obstacle. I also do not recall having given an authorization to perform a credit check, implying that this would boil down to me living in the wrong place (“address”)—if so, intolerable. The order value was small (possibly, around a 150 Euro) and would not be a legitimate cause for concern. The size and weight might have been well above average, but there is no obvious legitimate reason as to why this should have affected the payment methods. Further, both the value and size/weight were known before showing payments methods, and (for what should be a strictly internal check) it cannot be justified to not make the corresponding check in advance.

**E.g. in the form of a request to do a credit check or, for invoicing, a request to send data to a separate service, e.g. Klarna. I note that doing such a check without my consent would involve an illegal use of my data.

Also note that there was no indication of any connection to a check made in the messages displayed, including no mention of credit rating, size, weight, whatnot having had an impact. On the contrary, the impression of a Bauhaus wide restriction for everyone is created. This gross miscommunication is a further time waster.

As for the Cyberport issue discussed in the same text: Cyberport had per email requested that I state my preferred other payment options. I did so on the 27th (same day) and requested further instructions, due to the vagueness of the request. I am still waiting on a reaction from Cyberport. (But note that a lack of reaction within, at the time of writing, 46 hours need not indicate a major problem. It still compounds the delay, however. Even if Cyberport eventually honors my order, it will arrive at least three times later than originally indicated.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2019 at 7:16 pm

Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design II

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Sometimes, I feel like tearing my hair out—fortunately, what little is left is cut too short to get a good grip…

Prior to and after writing the previous installment ([1]), I tried to use the German Bauhaus for some major purchases for and/or some works on my apartment, having made good experiences as a minor customer in the physical stores. This included replacing my (awful) current kitchen.

For this purpose, about two weeks ago, I brought home a 1500-page catalog, which I assumed would be extremely helpful in preliminary planning, both with regard to what I wanted to do/buy and whether Bauhaus was a suitable partner for the task. This turned out not to be the case, because (a) large parts of my interests were not covered sufficiently (including that much of the kitchen products that they do have were not present), (b) almost all products that I checked (and actually found…) lacked a price. Instead of a price, there was a lowest-price guarantee—if I found the same product cheaper somewhere else, Bauhaus would give me an even better price. But what help is that when planing?!? When it comes to areas like furniture, house-hold appliance, and whatnots, prices between products in the same category can easily vary by a factor of ten, with a much smaller variation in quality. For my purposes, a current-price-with-reservations-for-changes would have been much more helpful than a lowest-price guarantee. I suspect that the same applies to most other customers, who will not decide on a certain product (“it’s just diviiine”) and then compare prices.* Instead they will look at products of a certain type and compare them—with price, it self, being one of the most important criteria.

*There might be some few that do decide before knowing the price, e.g. because they are very rich or lack price consciousness. But: Are those very likely to compare prices or look for lowest-price guarantees? They might not care about the missing price, but they have little benefit from the price guarantee either.

I tried to compensate for this by also looking at the associated website—slow as molasses, dependent on JavaScript, and guilty of the filter-change-causes-reload issue discussed in [1]. It was so horrible that I gave up and decided to use Bauhaus only as a fallback for the major buys/works, in case the many competitors did not work out.

Early this morning, I spent some time browsing the catalog, just in case, and decided that I could at least use Bauhaus to order some shelves (prices were usually present…), and I went to the website to look in detail at what was present and what matched my intended measurements. Here the many search criteria (including dimensions and material) really came in handy. The speed remained agonizing low, however, mostly due to the filter-change-causes-reload issue,* and interesting products often turned out not to be currently available or not available in the online store… I was sorely tempted to just give up; but decided to push through, seeing that I had postponed the shelves for close to a year already.

*Cf. [1] where this was less serious due to the very limited number of criteria. Here a greater number of criteria were present, I wanted to apply several of them and had to wait again and again: Max width—reload. Min width—reload. Min height—reload. Max price—reload. More specific product type—reload. Reduce to a certain brand—reload. Try another brand—reload twice. (Once to deselect the first brand; once to select the next.) Etc. Note that the great number of products made the alternative to filtering an even slower manual check of hundreds of items.

I made my choices, entered all my data, proceeded to pay, and … payment turned out to be impossible! I first tried my credit card, ran straight into 3D-Secure* hell, and opted to go back to try something else. Lastschrift* was offered, I clicked on the corresponding button, and was immediately met with a message to the effect that “we cannot offer this payment method at this particular time”. Odd: Two seconds ago, you claimed that you could! Next attempt: Invoice. I clicked on the button—and was met by the same absurd message! I tried to go back for something else, but found nothing that was usable. (I do not recall the exact options, but one was “gift card”, which is useless for someone who does not already have a gift card**…)

*See below discussion for more information on some payment methods.

**To which can be added that gift cards make lousy gifts: Never buy them, never use them as gifts. (I know that I have written something on this before, but I cannot find it on short notice. The gist: Gift cards lock money up to the advantage of the merchant. The customer is better of with regular money.)

To boot, these messages are hard to explain technically: There might be some odd case where a payment with Lastschrift is not possible, because a service provider somewhere has a technical issue; however, this should be very rare and would require a more reasonable error message. For invoice*, on the other hand, there is no excuse that could reasonably apply, short of an internal problem that made more-or-less any purchase impossible—which should then be explained well in advance.

*Yes, there are some sites that use an external provider to check the credit-worthiness of the customer before allowing invoice purchases. No, this is not a valid excuse—if this had been the case, Bauhaus should have accepted the (small) extra risk, rather than refusing the customer. To boot, most setups would likely have this check and Lastschrift independent of each other, which reduces the risk of a simultaneous error considerably.

This evening, I came home to find that Cyberport (cf. [1]) had refused to accept “invoice” as means of payment—after the fact and without voicing any type of complaint at the time of my original order.

To boot there was no good information on how to proceed, just a list of alternate payment methods, most of which are problematic or out of the question entirely (and which well illustrate the problems with online payments):

  1. Nachnahme (roughly, cash on delivery): Comes with a 6.90 Euro surcharge*. This is payable by the recipient of the package, although the sender is the beneficiary. The sole benefit for the customer is that he can be assured to have received his package at the time of payment, but, unlike e.g. invoice/credit-card/Lastschrift (cf. below) he has no additional recourse if the contents of the package are faulty.

    *If using DHL at the time of writing, according to official information. Other providers might have different fees; and fees change over time.

    To boot, this applies per package and is outside the control of the recipient: If the sender decides to split an order into more than one package, the recipient has to pay this fee multiple times.

    As an aside, there are legal restrictions to the degree a merchant can enforce fees on means of payment towards the customer. Whether these apply to Nachnahme is, unfortunately and in my understanding, untested—and without a legal block, the customer is still stuck with paying the fee that by rights should be paid by the merchant.

  2. Credit card: This used to be a wonderful means of payment. Today, there is a considerable risk that 3D-Secure* (or a similar mechanism) is used, which leads to a very high error rate and/or requires additional technology (e.g. a smart-phone), and increases effort considerably to boot. (See parts of [2] for why 3D-Secure is a negative for the customer and brings benefits only to other parties.)

    *I am still waiting for feedback as to whether Cyberport uses 3D-Secure.

  3. PayPal: Apart from the extra effort to create an account and whatever might apply, I have heard so many* stories of abysmal customer treatment or even outright fraud** from PayPal that I would not even consider opening an account there.

    *I used to work for a competitor of PayPal’s. During this time, I read a fair bit about the competition and heard quite a few “trade” stories. There are entire websites dedicated to this topic.

    **In the characterization by the customer. I have not investigated the actual intent behind the events, but the mere fact that customers are lead to such characterizations point to business methods that are, at best, negligent of the customer’s rights and interests.

    (I am uncertain what rights the customer has when having paid for undelivered or faulty merchandise. If these rights are weak, this is an additional issue.)

  4. Sofortüberweisung: An idiotic, unethical, and by rights illegal* “service”, which forces the customer to hand log-in information to his online banking to a third party**—in gross violation of both common sense and the typical terms and conditions* of the bank. I would never, ever, resort to this absurdity.

    *In my understanding, a very regrettable law change has made this type of approach legal and required banks to change their terms and conditions to allow it. The motivation (IIRC) was something along the line of allowing competition—the rights of the customer were not mentioned with one word. Much better would have been to crack down heavily on such abuse and to make clear that an account (be it bank, computer, service, …) holder must never be forced to give out such information.

    **Who then logs in to his banking, transfers money, and tells the merchant that the transfer was successful.

    (I am uncertain what rights the customer has when having paid for undelivered or faulty merchandise. If these rights are weak, this is an additional issue.)

  5. Vorauskasse (advance payment): Because the customer pays in advance, he has no protection against fraud and he is left to the whims of the merchant in case of problems.

    I have used it myself and got burnt by Beyer. I would only use it again if I trusted the merchant—never for a first buy, as with Cyberport.

  6. Giropay: A means of payment provided by the banks that provides a similar functionality to Sofortüberweisung, but does so in a manner that respects the users rights, does not drastically reduce security, and is compatible with the interests of the bank. (In fairness, there have been some concerns about sharing of non-login data, e.g. addresses, with the service provider in a non-transparent manner.)

    A decent protection of the customer is (IIRC) present in the case of undelivered or faulty merchandise, but I am vague on the details.

    I would be willing to use this, but have so far never had the opportunity, and I cannot vouch that it usually works technically.

What is not on the list is what non-negotiably should be present—the German gold-standard of payments: Lastschrift.*

*This allows the merchant to transfer the amount in question directly from the customers bank account, while the customer has the right to cancel incorrect transfers after the fact. The result is quite close to a credit card without having to have a credit card. (But without an actual credit, obviously.) While it might sound dangerous at first glance, it actually works quite well.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 27, 2019 at 11:49 pm

Some more experiences with eCommerce and poor web-design

with 5 comments

Since I have spent (and intend to continue to spend) a lot less time traveling, I have just ordered a desktop computer to get more comfort over my laptop.

This provided several good illustrations of how poorly thought-through many web-shops are.

For instance,* during the actual order stage, I found that copying my VAT-identification into the corresponding field led to an unspecified error—allegedly, something was wrong, but no word was given as to what. A bit of experimentation revealed that because I had not typed the VAT, the field did not recognize that an entry was present… This is idiotic on at least three counts: Firstly, this is the type of information that should be copied as a matter of course, to reduce the risk of accidental errors (and work needed). Secondly, a good developer would not have let himself be fooled by something like that.** Thirdly, a reasonable error message should have been given, e.g. that a mandatory field was empty. This would have made the error search much faster and would have avoided red herrings like a syntax error or an accidental copying of the wrong value (or an incomplete copying of the correct value). The error message displayed also showed the design error of appearing (only) at the top of the page, instead of next to the field. This was especially bad because the top of the page was not visible without scrolling when the field was visible… (However, at least the field was actually marked red, so that the user knew to search for an error message—I have seen even this be left out on some other sites.)

*At http://www.cyberport.de

**Most likely, a heuristic was used that “if the user has typed something, the field is not empty”. This is highly naive and the (easy) check whether the field actually was empty would be much better.

Similarly, there was one of those idiotic* “please re-type your email address” fields. Of course, I just grabbed the original entry and pasted it—and nothing happened. Apparently, instead of realizing that this type of field is an idiocy, the designer had decided to block copy actions to force a re-type. To boot, this was done without any discernible error or warning message.

*Email addresses, too, are best copied from a fix source—not typed. If it is copied, there is no risk of a mistype and the “re-type” field is a pointless time-waster. Most non-copiers will likely rely on auto-complete, which will almost always either give the correct result or the wrong result twice. Again the “re-type” field is a pointless time-waster. For those who do type, the clear majority can be expected to either type and double-check sufficiently carefully that the address is correct in the first field, while those who do commit an error will usually do so due to a memory error, which will usually be repeated in the “re-type” field… Again, this field is a pointless time-waster. (A better approach could be to e.g. put a warning text next to the first field, to indicate the communication problems that could ensue if the address is mistyped and “please double-check it”.

Earlier, I had visited a number of category pages from one of Germany’s most popular physical electronic stores.* This with an eye on looking for other things that might be interesting, the store(s) having a very wide selection of products, be it on- or off-line. Not only did I have to jump through hoops to get to these pages,** but once there, they were all empty… Whether this was due to an internal error or an unprofessional reliance on e.g. Google***, I do not know. What I do know is that I wasted a fair amount of time, bought nothing, and definitely will not return in a hurry.

*Conrad resp. http://www.conrad.de

**There were usually several clicks and a lot of scrolling needed (instead of the one click that should have been needed), because the original links did not lead to the category pages—but to information pages that contained a link to the real category page somewhere towards the bottom.

***Google (and a few other companies) provide extensive APIs that can facilitate web-development. For an online store, it should be a given that these are installed locally. However, some developers fail to do so, and instead rely on versions running on Google’s (or whoever’s) servers. This brings problems both with reliability and user privacy, and I have blocked some of these servers to protect myself from privacy violations.

The search criteria in several stores were abysmal*, missing even basics like the ability to filter computers based on e.g. OS (specifically, no** OS), amount of RAM, and similar. Typical sets of criteria were brand (rarely interesting***) and price (interesting, but not enough) and possible something else of lesser import (e.g. whether shipping could take place now or only in two days time). This resulted in result lists of dozens to hundreds of entries that had to be manually filtered. (With the effect that I looked through the first one or two pages, foregoing the many entries on later pages entirely…)

*Including http://www.cyberport.de

**As a Linux user, I do not want to pay extra for a Windows installation that I am just going to remove later. Of course, even among those content with a pre-installed OS, the question of which OS is often quite important. As an aside, the proportion of computers that still come with a pre-installed Windows is depressing—the year is 2019, not 1999, and it should be a given that a Windows installation is optional.

***While some might have a brand preference, it is usually far more important what characteristics the computer has, and in those rare cases where someone is justified in looking at the brand first, he would be better of going directly to the manufacturer website (for research, if not for the actual purchase; of course, after research, he could just search by product number and would never need the brand). A possible exception is a means to exclude some brand; however, this was never present. (Except by selecting all brands, and then de-selecting the one—with possibly disastrous time waste as the result. Cf. immediately below.)

A particular annoyance was the slowness that came through attempts to be interactive—confirming my observation that the more interactive and “helpful” a website tries to be, the slower and less helpful it tends to become. Notably, changing any filter setting leads to an automatic re-load, which implies a re-search or re-filtering server-side, which implies a considerable delay until the page is available again. However, it is rarely the case that the user only wants to change one filter setting,* and it would usually** be better to have him toggle the reload manually after making all changes. Consider e.g. prices on http://www.cyberport.de: Per default, they ranged from a few tens of Euros*** to many thousands. Naturally, I wanted to trim both values to, respectively, ensure that I got something actually usable and did not pay a fortune for something I did not need. However, to trim the range to e.g. 200–500 Euro, I had to change two filter settings. Both caused a reload with a significant loss of time.****

*Unless, obviously, the number of settings is too limited to begin with…

**One exception is when the one choice alters what other choices are available. This was not the case on these websites, however. (And when it is, it is usually better to pre-load such alterations in a manner that allows a client-side change of filter options without reloading the actual results from the server.)

***Presumably, either non-computers misleadingly put in the computer category or extreme mini-computers (Raspberry PIs or similar).

****To boot, the settings were not even input fields, but some type of weird bar, where the user had to move the ends of the bar until approximately the intended values appeared.

Excursion on email:
While a bit off topic, I note that Cyberport provided yet another example of the grossly unethical practice of not having a means to provide an email address without also consenting to spam, insteading forcing the user to revoke consent at a later time. (Of course, not providing an email address at all is not an option.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 26, 2019 at 9:37 pm

Follow-up: The misadventures of a prospective traveler

with one comment

Recently, I had great problems booking an airplane ticket to Sweden, ultimately resorting to using a travel agency, which required both an unnecessary fee and a trip on foot.

For my return to Germany, my seasoned-traveler father booked the ticket from his computer.* While this worked in one go, the service that he ended up using (“supersavertravel”) was abysmal: The entire interface seemed geared at one thing and thing only—to coerce the user into buying expensive additional services that he did not need. This to the point that it was necessary to explicitly decline these many services and to do so individually—no, I do not want a hotel; no, I do not want extra insurance; no I do not want a rental car; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; no, …; … I even seem to recall (but could be wrong) that there was an additional query after submit along the lines of “You have not chosen this-or-that. Are you really sure that this is deliberate?”… Utterly inexcusable was the checkbox to decline spam: Where more main-stream businesses use a checked checkbox to imply “I consent to be spammed”, here the user needed to check the checkbox to decline spam…** The confirmation email, unsurprisingly, contained much more advertising and attempts to bring unneeded services to my attention than it did confirmation…***

*I had left my own computer in Germany in order to travel lightly; and only bought a one-way ticket to Sweden, because I did not know how long I needed to stay.

**Implying that the main idea almost certainly was to trick users into making the wrong choice.

***This in stark contrast to EuroWings below, where the confirmation email was informative, to the point, and did not even abuse HTML for the email text. (Portions of [1] contain some discussion of why HTML has no place in emails.)

A second trip turned out to be needed.* I tried EuroWings again, and this time everything actually worked.** However:

*My mother’s old house is being sold, and the time needed to sort through my own old books and whatnot turned out to be much longer than I originally thought.

**Contrast this with the original text. This time, I made sure to pay by credit card (3D-secure was not needed) instead of invoice. I do not know whether the old issue was a temporary server-side problem, a problem with a workflow somewhere, or whether there is some problem relating to invoices that I now ducked. (Regarding workflow: In my experience, most QA checks tend to run through fairly straight-forward scenarios, meaning that a scenario that involves the user e.g. going back to a previous step, responding to a validation error, actually reading the T-&-C’s, whatnot, is often left untested. These scenarios, however, are disproportionately likely to cause errors—especially when Ajax and other “state sensitive” technologies are used.)

  1. EuroWings too tried to advertise additional services, if far fewer, in a manner that detracted considerably from usability and prolonged the process unnecessarily. Unlike with “supersavertravel”, they were all opt-in, but it would be so much better if they were all collectively moved to a separate and skippable step, especially since they will only ever be interesting for a small minority of the customers. (Be it because they have no need, already have made other arrangements, would lose points with some program by booking/buying somewhere else, …)

    Hotels are a potentially odd area. In the specific context of a flight, admittedly, I can see many cases where it would be helpful to “co-book” a hotel. However, hotels are offered more-or-less everywhere, including for e.g. train-travel. In most of these cases, booking a hotel together with the means of travel turns the reasonable workflow on its head: It is usually the hotel, not the means of travel, that is the bottle-neck, and a reasonable workflow would then involve finding and booking a hotel first and finding means of travel second.

  2. Integrating a please-do-not-spam-me checkbox in the main pages would be trivial. Nevertheless, declining spam is only possible through visiting a separate page. On this page, moreover, the email address has to be added redundantly and manually, and it could be (depending on internals and the exact steps used by the customer) that the spam rejection only takes effect after the fact, e.g. in that the one click somewhere activates an unethical implicit consent to spam, while the other page only revokes this consent. This would leave a window of abuse open.

    Frankly, this is so common that legal measures are necessary: It must by law be forbidden both to use implicit consents and to require explicit rejections for any use of personal data (in general, but the more so for email data) that is not central to the process for which the data was provided. This, notably, from the customers perspective—not the data collector’s. (For instance, the data collector might see sending a news letter with advertising as a central part and having to send a confirmation email as an annoying negative, but for the customer it is the other way around.)

  3. There are potentially redundant entries for email, including one for the actual transaction and one for please-notify-me-in-case-of-delays. It would be better to keep them as one per default (if in doubt by automatically filling the one with the other and allowing a manual change). Further, the entries are likely made in the wrong order for most users, with a non-mandatory entry of please-notify-me-in-case-of-delays on one page and the mandatory actual transaction address on a later page. Further, the former came with a pop-up upon submit that urged me to fill in this non-mandatory field anyway—which seems more like fishing for email addresses than an attempt to provide a service.

    Why had I left the email address out? Well, I knew from my earlier attempts* that if I did provide an email address for notifications, then I would also be forced to provide a cell-phone** number—absolutely idiotic.

    *The attempts in general are described in the original text, but details like the above were left out.

    **Note that I currently do not even have a cell-phone. Also note that cell-phones too can be abused for spam (through SMS).

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2019 at 1:08 am