November 01, 2011

BNCollege, your website is terrible

Barnes and Noble, I think it's fantastic that you're running the Longwood bookstore, don't get me wrong. And your general online presence is a reasonably decent experience. But your interface, particularly the one you make me deal with as a faculty member, is terrible; you need to give your web programmers a talking-to about usability and actually knowing what their data looks like. Consider this a long-form bug report.

When we need to submit our book requests, we head on over to the bookstore's website, if we aren't sufficiently old-fashioned to entrust the job to our department secretary (who, as an aside, is pretty competent; in retrospect I should have been more old-fashioned in this instance and bypassed the web entirely). Once there, we're directed to a page with a multi-step process. If you personally haven't seen this page, it looks like this:

[book request form]

Let's start at the top and work our way through. The first "step" is not only optional, but the usual case is to skip it, because as part of registering you made me give you my email. So this "step 1" is just sitting there wasting space. A venial sin, I suppose.

The next step (the first real step) requires me to select the term---my options being, at the moment, Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. A little late to be choosing books for this term, don't you think? More importantly, this field, and the department pulldown, reset every time so that I have to keep reselecting the same options over and over. Another venial sin, perhaps.

Here we come to the truly awful bits. Under step 3, you direct me to type in an ISBN in either its 10-digit (old) form or its 13-digit (new) form. Several of my books are more than a couple years old, so I type in their old-style ISBN. The response, after I click the "Search" button, is:

ISBN You entered is invalid. Please enter only numbers and '-' for ISBN
It's a little entertaining that this error message seems to permit dashes after the big NO DASHES warning, but the bigger problem is that the system is set up to reject close to 9% of all old-style ISBNs as invalid---the final "digit" of an ISBN is sometimes the letter X! As you, a book publisher, presumably know, and should probably convey to your web programmers.

It may not matter, though, because even for the books I had that didn't have an X in the ISBN, the 10-digit form was consistently not found in your database, even when (after I converted to 13-digit and retyped it) the book was in fact in your database. So maybe the answer is, you don't actually store the 10-digit ISBNs anymore, in which case you really need to update that entry form. (While you're fixing that, you should get rid of the "NO DASHES" restriction. It is trivial for the programmer to remove them after the fact, but letting the user type them in prevents an entire category of data entry error.)

In a couple cases I didn't have a current edition with me, so I didn't have an ISBN. No problem, because of the search-by-author box, right? Here's the thing: if you type in an author and title and click "search", the system takes you to another webpage where you have to type that same information in again. This is aggravating, and you are wasting my time, and the time of every faculty member who hasn't yet given up entirely on entering their book orders into your system this way.

Making it even worse, when I type in the author, title, and edition number on this other page---leaving the ISBN blank because I don't know it and the Publisher field blank because I think they switched publishers for the new edition and don't remember the new one---I am presented with a popup that says, and I quote,

Enter both author and title together.
If your goal is to make your customers frustrated and angry, this is a superb message. It is less well-suited to informing your users that they need to provide publisher information. I'm not sure why you require publisher information anyway---since obviously some human has to interact with this information before it gets posted---but if you're going to not let me submit the form without it, tell me why.

Finally, at long last, you return me to the main book order form, in which you have now cleared all the information I entered in step 2. This happens no matter what when you enter your book selections, every time you enter your book selections. That's right: the order I'm actually supposed to do these steps is to fill in step 3 first, and only then fill in step 2. By this point, the entire process is making at least your art and math faculty customers think Escher must be involved someplace (the humanities profs are thinking of Kafka instead).

As it turns out, I am a computer scientist and I do understand that sometimes these bugs slip through, and it's important to be able to have bug reports if you hope to file a ticket and actually get the problem fixed. And I tried to do that. I looked for a bug report link, or a contact email for your web administrator, or any sort of place to submit this information. But then, in a final little zing, the "Feedback" link you provide links only to a many-page web survey that gives me no chance to actually tell you something. There is a "customer service" link, but that page has not one but three problems: first, the person it gives is a local manager, who will have no direct control over any part of the bncollege website. Second, the page gives a phone number but no email address for this person. And third, the web form that attempts to reinvent email, poorly, provides a tiny text box to write my message, clearly not adequate to the task of writing something like this (when the manager's just going to have to pass it along anyway).

So, naturally, I came over here to write it all up as an open letter. This has the disadvantage (for you) of making you look bad, because I'm laying out all the specific ways in which your interface is broken, and anyone can read it. It has the advantage (for me) that I can now send a link to the manager in that dinky little web form, asking for the URL to be passed along to someone who might be able to do something about it. Partly, I'm stubborn; partly, I'm documenting this for a nice case study I'll use next time I teach a web design or UI course; and partly I'm just being self-serving because I'd like for at least some piece of this to be fixed before the next time I'll have to deal with this piece-of-junk interface.

But, at least I'll post an update if you fix it.

Edit #1: Another little zing: by the time I typed my message into the dinky little customer support web form, "my logon session has expired." Sigh.

"At least four speakers at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington made Obama-teleprompter jokes while standing right in front of teleprompter screens, as though irony had never been invented." --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 11:38pm on 1 Nov 2011
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