VSJ – March 2009 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones wonders whether the designers of search tools could think more about their users.

Leafing through the Rugby telephone directory some years ago (no, you’re right, I don’t get out much) I came across the following entry:

British Rail

All other enquiries                x…..x

Engineering                           x…..x

Passenger enquiries             x…..x

which, at first sight, looked pretty odd. It’s obvious what had happened, of course. The system had shuffled each record submitted into alphabetical order and no one had thought that there are circumstances in which that makes little sense. Had they done so, they would have built in an order specification option. Even without it, whoever compiled the directory could have overridden the natural order of events with:

British Rail

1. Passenger enquiries         x…..x

2. Engineering                       x…..x

3. All other enquiries           x…..x

I’m not sure that we’ve made a lot of progress. Looking for the phone number of a pub called the Rose and Crown (OK, I get out sometimes) in BT’s on-line phone book, I was surprised to find that it denied all knowledge of any hostelries of that name in the entire Canterbury area. A common enough pub name, surely. Ah, of course. Key in ‘Rose & Crown’ and there they all are. Google has no such trouble, not least because it ignores connectives. Actually, so does BT but only if the connective isn’t alphanumeric. So it searches for ‘and’ if you ask it to, and, when it fails to find it, it returns no entries. But it doesn’t bother to search for ‘&’ at all, so returns entries containing just the words ‘Rose’ and ‘Crown’.

This isn’t a rant against BT – lots of Web sites exhibit similar flaws. When I’m researching the purchase of some new piece of kit, I generally start with the technical reviews, follow on with the user reviews and then visit the manufacturer’s Web site to download the manuals and specifications. On entering the latter, I key the model number into the search box. More often than not, this is a mechanism solely for raising my blood pressure, because the system smugly responds that it’s never heard of the device I’m searching for. Often, the reason is that the reviewers have committed the cardinal sin of quoting the model number as VT156/n when it should have been VT 156-n or whatever. In any case, the number of permutations of spaces and special characters (oh, yes, sometimes even spaces are significant) make it easier to wade through the entire Web site tree rather than do a ‘quick’ search. Or I could always find another supplier.

And that’s the real point here. The modern customer’s loyalty is inversely proportional to his or her irritation quotient with the Web site of the business in question. And there can be few things more irritating than the electronic equivalent of being told by a shopkeeper that he doesn’t stock something that you can clearly see in the window. Attracting and retaining customers in the current economic circumstances is more important than ever. Let’s make sure they’re not put off by being offered inadequate IT tools.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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