Smart Web – How Smart?

While reading this Rediff.com story about Maruti Madhavrao Phad, a Maharashtra government employee who got injured during the recent terrorist attack on Bombay, I noticed something.

It is not related to the story as such. If you scroll down to the end of the story you’ll see the credits for is particular story. It reads “Image: Maruti [Get Quote] Madhavrao Phad at his home. Text: A Ganesh [Images] Nadar. Photograph: Uttam Ghosh


See the screenshot of the line. Notice the yellow areas? These are smart tags which apparently the engine parsing the code of the pages inserts to “enrich” the user’s browsing experience, by providing additional information related to the content the user is browsing through at the moment.

Note the word “related”? Now see what the yellow highlights in the image show. “Get Quote” for Maruti. Here Maruti is the first name of the hero of the story, not the name of a car-making company. Yet, the Rediff engine treats it as the company’s name, and is offering you stock quotes for it. And for Ganesh, the link is a Rediff search link with the string “Ganesh” – marked “Images”. Which means that it would return images of the Lord Ganesha, and other celebrities called “Ganesh”. Not images of the author of the article in this case, A Ganesh Nadar.

And both these tags are intrusive, they not only break the text they are placed in, they break proper names of people. Intrusive and irreverent. Considering the tone of the article, even more so.

Were they really necessary?

Why can’t I pay my bill?

I use Tata Indicom’s broadband as my home connection (plugged into a wifi router, to allow me complete freedom of movement in the apartment, but that’s a different story), and I love it. Last I checked at www.calcuttatelephones.com (their speed checking tool has been mentioned on BBC’s Click), the connection (marketed as a 512 mbps connection) competes well with T1 lines. Impressive! There have been a few outages – 2 to 3 maximum since I have subscribed, but the helpline is helpful and they get the connection up in less than half a day everytime.

What really bothers me is their online presence.

Simple task: I have been getting calls from their collection people asking me to pay the due bill. So I want to make an online payment.

The usual routine with most vendors for this is: sign in to the website, click on Pay Bill, log in, follow instructions, enter card/account information, get confirmation from account provider, and you are done.

But with Tata Indicom, it does not work that way. What I need to do is, click on Pay Your Bill Online Here, log in, they should show me my outstanding, I select payment mode, confirm, read terms, confirm, log in again, on which I am directed to the usual post-login screen (the welcome user screen), then I click Pay Bill again, on which I am asked to log in again, and then I go through either of the two routes again (see my outstanding or the welcome screen). So far I have “logged in” some twenty five times since morning, but I have not once reached the screen where I am supposed to enter my account/card information for the payment processing people.

And I’m sure I’ll keep getting those payment collection calls. When I’d tell them that the site is not working, they’d say “Yes sir, we know it can cause problems sometimes, should I send someone over to collect a cheque?”

India’s biggest business house. Internet service provider. They are in the business of technology – the internet. Their core service is fantastic. How much effort or money does it take to smoothen this part of the user experience – the one where the customer is willing to pay their bill, but is unable to do so with ease? It’s not that they can’t do it. So why the negligence, why the apathy?

MetLotus – are they getting it right?

I came across this Facebook ad today, and clicked on it. It was an Indian site, which is… I don’t know what. On reaching the site (www.metlotus.com), I see the following:

metlotus.com screenshot, click to enlarge

What’s wrong with this? A good design, nice layout, soothing colours, slick animations. But where is the information about the site or the company that it represents? There are the generic social networking promises flashing in neat animation clips, but apart from that? What is its USP, positioning, the hook that would make me want to click any of the links on this page?

When I clicked on ‘Take a Tour’ (which I did purely for the reason for writing this blog), I am presented with another slick flash site in a pop-up window, which has description on how to use this site. Apparently it is a social networking venture. But didn’t the Facebook ad mention something about widgets? I clicked on that link thinking this might be a site specializing in making widgets that we can use on other social networking sites.

Now if it is trying to be a popular social networking site, why is the interface so unusable (for lack of a better word), and not intuitive? How many of us had to go through a tutorial when we first started using Orkut, Facebook or MySpace? Why does a new site, which no one knows about, insist that users log in on the front page without showing any tangible benefit to signing up?

And because I’m a designer of sorts, I also have a problem with the way the consistency with the sans-serifs in the entire design system is not maintained – they’ve used Arial in Flash animations, where they don’t have to worry about embedding fonts! That’s sacrilege in graphic designer-speak 🙂

Leaving this last bit about font puritanism apart, how many times did my mind go “negative” while going through that site – can you count?

Please provide a what???

A Calcuttan missing his hometown opens up the website belonging to the most read newspaper in that town. Pleased with what he saw, he clicked on one of the sections of the e-paper. The site tells him that he needs to be registered in order to go deeper into the contents. No problem. He is ready to register. So he clicks on register and fills up a form. Presses Submit. And see what he gets:

Email ID? The form does not mention email ID anywhere, let alone ask for it. Oh, the error page tells him that the “Username” field should have been populated with his email ID.

Who would have thought? 🙂

If you were that person, would you fill up that form again and continue to use the website? I didn’t. Who knows what other ‘mistake’ I would be chided for next? Is the phone number field actually supposed to contain my height?

Is it so difficult for web designers and companies that hire them to make websites that are free of inconsistencies and are helpful instead of carrying the old ’80-90s attitude of “I made this thing and it works at my end. You need to learn how to make it work for you if you want to use it.”?

It is all adding up to the user experience and thus the brand in the end.