(Don’t) Buy Online (11th December 2008)

Today I bought a gift for someone online. Obviously I can’t give specifics because if they see this it will spoil the surprise.

What I will say is that online shopping remains a terribly confusing, frustrating and keyboard-intensive way to do things. Even with a skilled guide, such as my sister.


As the name implies, using this site requires you hack through dense foliage. Rather than obliterating a picturesque and essential gearwheel in the machinery of life, you’ll be losing your faith in the web as a platform for doing business.

Fight through a dense forest of textboxes. Unintuitive labelling text attacks your senses and conceals your path. Designs are arranged in ways that make me think “the squint test” was never popularised.

Sneaky but important messages camoflage themselves with over-styled text. You must conquer your banner blindness!

Finally, like reaching the source of the Amazon river, you realise your dreams. But the story continues! There’s a curious, ancient message to decipher. After consulting the greatest crypologists of our time, you may discover its meaning: your item won’t be delivered in time.

Thus ends your fruitless expedition. (Flashback to the irritation of the first “choose your own story” book you read.)

As an epilogue, I scouted around their Customer Services area to cose the account we had created along the way. Apparently you have to write an e-mail to them requesting this. I can see how a button to do this could be counter-productive when your target audience is international, ordinary users. It’s still a bit laborious for those of us who know what we are doing and are fed up with how laborious Amazon was making it.


Somewhat in contrast, Tesco’s site is clearly presented. You must still enter lots of details.

In particular, the postcode lookup provides a dropdown list of street addresses. But far too many are listed. When I entered my complete address, all the houses on my road were listed. That’s more than 40 properties and each has its own postcode!

After selecting the items I wanted, I went to the shopping basket. Which uses a different, seemingly older design. Having worked at Tesco for 2 years, it’s very reminiscent of going from the clean and spacious shop floor to the crowded and utilitarian warehouse out back.

Each product has a link to explain what the availability actually means. These are described in simple terms, although I’m not entirely clear if “dispatched” means “will arrive at your house at this date”. When I’d actually have my grubby mitts on it is what I wanted to know. Obviously.

The lower prices and fairly clear design means this is where my money went.

Windows Live Hotmail

We used my sister’s card to pay for the goods. This meant supplying her e-mail address.

Beautiful and clear design, for sure. But where are the buttons to Save, Send and so forth? Oh. They are links, not buttons. And they are above what you're working on. And they are separated from it by a thin grey line. I found this impossible to spot, until Zoe pointed it out to me.

While we were there, we wanted to correct an address Zoe had entered incorrectly. But you can’t just click the address in the To field and correct it. Oh no. You have to click Contacts, which is in the bottom-left of the screen.

Like, just about the furthest place it could be from the To field.

Once there, the details aren’t presented as editable boxes. You have to press an Edit link from above this border. Then click a Save link from above the border.

To its credit, there is a good old <textarea> where you can Send a quick message. Since most e-mails from Hotmail are probably “a quick message”, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, maybe quick messages are what it’s UI should be optimised for?

Standardista Silo

My daily browsing involves a small number of technical websites made by specialists. It’s a small number due to survival of the fittest and has been ruthlessly pruned over the years. It’s a comforting cacoon of simplicity and care.

Stepping outside of this into the real web is one thing when I’m studying how authors use markup. But trying to use mainstream websites? It’s a wonder e-commerce is profitable. More companies need to subcontract sdesign1 to make their website!

The next day…

We had a much better experience with High Street Shopping.