Failing to Serve Basic Visitor Needs

It’s funny how the weaknesses of some websites are only exposed when you really need them.  I came across a situation yesterday that exposed some serious, fundamental failures on some websites that really should know better.  These are the sort of sites that users with little Internet experience will have to use, so their general failure to be usable is particularly poor.

Tired Searching for Tyres - Usability Failures

I parked up my car yesterday and for some reason left the steering on “full lock” (i.e. the steering wheel was turned all the way in one direction). Not something I usually do, but I’m glad I did on this occasion.  As i was returning to my car I noticed some uneven wear on the front tyres.  On further investigation, it seems the inside shoulder of the tyre had worn to point where the wire supporting the side-wall was exposed.  So, I needed to replace the tyres promptly.

Unfortunately, yesterday was Saturday and I didn’t notice the excessive wear until fairly late in the evening.  No where was open.  So I hit the net to see what was open today (Sunday) and get a rough idea of the cost.  I know that within a couple of miles there’s a Kwik-Fit, an ATS Euromaster and a National Tyre centre.  So I Google’d their respective websites looking for three things:

  1. What hours, if any, are they open on Sunday
  2. Do they stock the tyres I need, and are they in stock at the branch
  3. How much will it cost

Nothing spectacular, and information you would reasonably expect to find on the website’s of national garages.  So how did the fare?

ATS Euromaster

The ATS Euromaster website was, by far, the most useless.  There are so many problems with this website, it’s difficult to know where to start.  The first problem I came across was trying to locate my local branch.

Clickable AreaThe image to the right shows two versions of the same “button”.  The one on the top is how this appears on the ATS Euromaster homepage.  The one below is the same button with the clickable areas highlighted.  Can you see the problem?  Even though the entire graphic looks clickable, only the actual text is.  To compound this, the graphic has an arrow surrounded by a circle, usually an indication that clicking on that shape will progress the user through to the next step.  It doesn’t.  Suffice to say I clicked the button, and nothing happened.  Not a good start.

The ATS Centre in BristolOnce I found the branch locator, and used to find my nearest branch, I came across my next problem.  While I can see the branch, there’s no opening times.  There is a (generic to all branches) email address, and a phone number, but it’s 21:00 on a Saturday.  I won’t get a response.  I just want to know if the branch is open or not.  Going hand in hand with this massive omission is the fact that, once again, the title of the branch looks clickable (see the image to the left, click to enlarge).  Of course, it’s not.

ATS Tyre ServicesAs you can tell, this website is failing on some fundamental aspects of usability.  So how does it do with my next test, finding a tyre?  I headed to the “Retail” section of the website and looked for a tyre search feature.  And continued looking.  The image to the right is the “Our Tyre Services” section of the Retail page.  Apparently, they don’t do tyre replacement or tyre fitting.  All I could really do is head to the Tyre Brands link.  This really didn’t help.  I know I’ve got Bridgestone Potenza tyres currently on the car, but Bridgestone aren’t listed.  I also know that Pirelli do tyres in the right size in their “P-Zero” range, so I hit Pirelli.  What I got shocked me, even given the complete failure of this website to meet my expectations up to this point, it still shocked me.  The Pirelli page contains a brief history of Pirelli and a list of Pirelli ranges they sell.  This list isn’t clickable, so I can’t tell what sizes they stock, and there’s no prices.  There isn’t even a link to the Pirelli website so I can look up the sizes each range covers.  If I didn’t already have the knowledge I have, there would be no way for me to accurately choose a tyre manufacturer for my model of car, and no way to choose a range within that manufacturer.  This is, for all intensive purposes, a completely useless web page.

I have to say, in all honesty, I think this is the worse website I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across.  i set out with three goals, they weren’t unreasonable, any reasonable person would expect the information to be readily available on the website.  The usability failures are so glaring, from the fairly minor (like inconsistent link indication) to the unforgiveable (a complete absence of information), that one has to question the benefit of the website.  I certainly could have found my local branch through either Google Maps or Yell.com, and the ATS website didn’t provide any information above and beyond this.

National Tyre Centre

My next step was National.  And wow, what a difference.  Right there, in prominent position on the home page is functionality to search for tyres by size, by car registration number and to find a branch.  So the first test, is my local branch open?

The Page for the Bristol Branch of NationalI found my local branch quickly by entering my post code (although the inability input an area as opposed to a post code is a fairly serious omission).  Unfortunately, for Sunday opening times I had to ring the branch, which of course would be closed.  Not particularly helpful.  I was also intrigued by the “Select this Branch” option.  So I clicked it to see what would happen.  The next page displayed a photo of the branch and a message indicating I had now set this to be my default branch.  The page had a list of services available at the branch but, the list wasn’t a list of links.  It also never really explained what setting my default branch actually meant.  Are the quotes now tailored to this branch?  Am I only going to see products available at this branch?  Who knows!

7 Cartoon Characters representing National ProductsThe next step (even though I don’t know if the branch is open or not when I want to go) is finding and pricing tyres.  Looking at the menu across the top of the page the most logical place to start would be “products”, so I choose it and am presented with seven cartoon characters.  Each representing a different service.  Now, I have nothing against branding, but this is a poor way to navigate through a site.  Using visual metaphors is fine, but they are very difficult to get right.  In this case, it’s a bad decision.  Each character represents a car part, and while most people know what a tyre looks like, it’s not so clear cut when you start looking at oil changes, suspension components and brakes.  There’s also a bit of confusion between car and bike tyres.  The bike tyres are represented by the tyre character wearing a helmet, which could just as easily represent high performance or racing car tyres.  Fortunately, there’s some text links down the right hand side (which eye tracking studies seem to suggest will be missed by many users).

Clicking the “Tyres” link doesn’t necessarily do what you expect it to do.  Instead of allowing you to find a tyre, it takes you to a page that gives you advice about tyres, when to replace them and such like.  Bizarrley there’s no way to actually find a tyre.  You can select a manufacturer, which lists the types of tyres they supply, but that’s about it.  Even when viewing the list of tyres, you can’t select a particular model to see what sizes are supported.  There’s also a rating, which appears to be an arbitrary number out of five, with no explanation of it’s meaing, or whether high or low ratings are better.  Pretty useless really.  But at least there’s more information available than ATS.

The Interface for Searching TyresNow I know there’s a facility available to search for a tyre, I saw it before.  But in order to search for a tyre, I have to leave the tyre section and go back to the home page.  Backwards logic.  Fortunately there are a number of options to find a tyre.  My car, I know, has optional wheels on it, so using the car or registration search won’t work, I need to manually enter the size.  This is actually quite well designed.  The image of a tyre is colour co-ordinated so that you know where to read the dimensions from your current tyres.  A good idea.  It is a bit risky, however, as the speed rating is located after the size on my tyres, not where the image indicates.  I entered my dimensions, search, and I get five results.

Tyre Search ResultsThe image to the right is an example of one of the tyres returned.  You’ll notice that there’s a rating assinged to the tyre, which now seems to be above 5, which I assumed was the upper limit for the ratings on the other page.  Presumably, either they are using two different rating systems or there weren’t any tyres rated above 5 on the other page.  I think the second choice is unlikely, as I was looking at reasonably expensive, performance orientated tyres.  The other thing that I noticed was that there’s a small “i” next to the fitment.  To me, this means information and, seeing as fitment isn’t something I am familiar with (and therefore I can assume most people won’t be aware of), I assumed that clicking the “i” will provide more information.  It doesn’t.  The only purpose it serves is to cause confusion.

The National website is much, much better than the ATS site.  While it has its problems, they aren’t in the same league as those with ATS.  Some usability focused testing, and navigation analysis could really improve the site significantly.

Kwik-Fit

List of services at Kwik FitThe third large chain I knew was close by is Kwik-Fit.  Upon loading the site there is an immediate feeling of class.  Aesthetically, the site blows the other two out of the water.  While it’s not ground breaking, and it’s not going to win any awards, in this company it’s Kiera Knightly to the others Anne Widdecombe.  Not even close.  The five most prominent links are the ones you would be looking for when visiting a site like this.  It’s unfortunate they chose to put these links down the right as opposed to the left, but they are visually obvious enough to get around this.

Upon choosing “Locate a Centre” something slightly strange happens.  You are taken to the page with the search form, but you also gain a new tool bar across the top of the page.  This isn’t present on the home page.  I’m very much of the view that navigation such as this, global navigation, should be just that, global.  When a visitor enters the site, they immediately have a problem to solve, “how do I complete the task”.  The page allowing you to search for a Kwik Fit BranchBy changing your navigation part way through the site, you force the user to solve this problem twice.  The site does do a good job when you want to search for a branch.  You can search by street, town/city or post code.  If you’re a tyre centre, I see the ability search by location rather than just post code as key.  There are many occasions where you urgently need their services, but you may not know the post code of your current location, it’s not always easy to get hold of this information.  However, you almost always know the town you are in.  Another thing this page gets very right is a brief summary of the typical opening hours of their branches.  I can instantly see that most branches are open on Sundays.  Great.

So to find my nearest branch, I type in my city name and click “Locate a centre”.  Nothing happens.  So I click it again.  Nothing.  The page is definitely loading, my browser is telling me that, but I can’t seen any results, nor can I see any error messages.  I’ve seen problems like this before, and it usually comes down to the browser I’m using.  It is a beta version of FireFox after all.  So I try it in Safari.  It is at this point the problem becomes evident.  The results are loaded below the search form!  In FireFox, at my screen resolution, there’s absolutely no indication above the fold that the search as been performed and I need to scroll down to see the results.  In Safari, which allows for a slightly bigger canvas, I can see one line under the search form.  After performing the search, this line reads:

Your results are shown below.

Kwik Fit Branch Search ResultSo the results are there, but the website didn’t want to tell me about them in any meaningful way.  Luckily the centre is returned and there are some handy links next to it.  I can instantly see that the opening times are available, and I can tell that it’s an MOT centre.  There’s also the option to plot directions to and from the centre and show it on a map.  To me, the key is the opening hours.  So I click the link and I can see that it’s open 10 – 4 on Sundays.  Out of three major websites for national, if not international companies, why does only one have this information?

Kwik Fit Tyre Search FormSo now I know it’s open, I can go and find some tyres.  Choosing the “Tyres” link in the new menu bar I am taken to a screen with three tyre search options.  Search by Car Registration, Search by Car Make and Model and Search by Size.  The most complete and sensible options so far.  I know the size, so I try and search on size.  The form is very similar to that found on the National site, but they’ve implemented it slightly differently.  Instead of colour coding the fields to the tyre image, they highlight the area on the tyre that you need to be reading.  Very slick.  The only slight problem I have with this approach is that it doesn’t let you know before hand that you’re going to get any help with finding these values.  This may put off some users who aren’t confident enough to try the form.  Ideally, a hybrid of this and the National approach would be best.

The search results are fairly straight forward.  It lists the tyres available in that size with a brief description of them and the price.  Any offers specific to those tyres are also clearly indicated.  Once you’ve chosen the tyre you want, you can select a quantity and get a quote.  Unfortunately the quote is a PDF document you have to print, which is a pain.  There are also some hidden extras, such as balancing, valce replacement and fitting, which aren’t clear on the tyre search results.  This is a bit deceptive but I guess you can buy just the tyre for the price quoted.  I’d still like to see some form of warning that the price will increase.  i couldn’t clearly see whether the tyre I had chosen was in stock in the local branch.

The Kwik Fit website seems better thought out than the others.  I doubt they’ve done and usability focused testing, otherwise some of the points I’ve highlighted above would have been shown up, but it seems as if it’s at least been considered.  The result is a site that’s more usable than the others, contains more useful information than the others, and is more aestheticaly pleasing than the others.

Summary

Buying tyres is something most people have to put up with.  It’s not a pleasant experience, and is often expensive (it cost me £300 for two) and confusing.  The websites of garages that provide tyre services should be tailoured to low-experience internet users and clearly thought out.  They should be goal orientated.  You don’t go to one of these sites for entertainment.  You go there because you need something.  The sites should be fully focused on meeting those needs.  I’m sure there are people out there who have other needs than mine, but I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of users will have the same goals as me.  They want to find a branch, see if it’s open and get the cost of tyres )or exhausts, or brakes etc.).  The fact that two of these websites fail these most basic of needs is pretty damning.  When you consider many of the users aren’t experienced in the internet, these aren’t tech sites after all, the need to simplify and guide is foremost.  The ATS website especially is awfull in that regard, and even I, as an experienced internet user and someone who builds websites, found it impossible to find the information I required.

Probably the biggest endorsement I can give is that the £300 I spent on tyres went to Kwik-Fit.  The only company that could tell me that the branch was open, and give me a price on tyres.  I wonder how many times ATS Euromaster and National have lost out on business because of their badly conceived and implemented web presence?

Tyre photo by Eric Castro.