The way the cookie crumbles

2 08 2012

I was recently given a responsibility upgrade and now manage our website. As part of this my first task was to decide how we would comply with the cookie law, so I went for a belts and braces approach. New visitors to our site are now confronted with an obtrusive pull-down lightbox asking if they’re happy to accept our cookies, with an explanatory option going through all the different types of cookie and what they might be used for. I made sure there was an additional “decline and remember” option to enable visitors to refuse all cookies except the one that kept asking them if they would accept cookies. I’m that thorough.

Having been at a number of colleagues’ desks since the implementation of this, I’ve noticed that nearly everyone still has this GUI popping up whenever they visit our site. Despite my going through all the options to make sure we had the best possible information available to our visitors, 90% of people haven’t bothered to read it. When I ask them, they admit to being aware of the cookie law and to knowing that the pop-up must be related to this – but when asked why they didn’t choose one of the options to make the pop-up go away, the response is invariably along the lines of “I didn’t have time to read it properly” or “it’s easier just to leave it.”

As a developer who takes the time and effort to make sure our website and other digital tools are optimised towards the best user experience possible, it’s intensely frustrating to find out that users just want to click and go. The old adage that you can lead a horse to water but not force it to drink has rarely been more appropriate than with today’s web user. You can present visitors with clear signposts to content, well thought-out internal architecture and an excellent search facility, but there will always be people who can’t find things or misunderstand what is there. That’s why it’s so important to remain up-to-speed on usability and design practices, we’ll never please all of the people all of the time but we should try to satisfy as many of them as we can.

Who is this cookie law satisfying at the moment? I don’t feel any safer from scammers than I did before; in fact, the law has generated additional ways to frighten web designers into paying out money. According to a survey in May, 4/5 of users now feel safer, though  75% of those asked about it had never heard of the law before. The last-minute change towards implied consent has only muddied the waters and a clear method of compliance has yet to emerge from the depths.

That pop-up at the top of our site bothers me, but at the moment it remains a necessary evil. Not only does it damage the aesthetics of our site (and many others), the implications for accessibility have to be examined and addressed next, to avoid complying with one law only to fall foul of another. Perhaps in time we’ll be able to make the warning a little less in-your-face. Here’s hoping.

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Cookie monster

6 06 2012

Hello! I’m back after 6 months of maternity leave and straight into a big kerfuffle on the interweb about cookies. Not the type I’ve been munching on during my yummy mummy lunches, but those pesky bits of code that enable websites to work properly and (sometimes!) to make money.

Cookie monster

Cookies!

Webmasters have been given a year to prepare for the change in the law, but this hasn’t stopped 80% of sites in the UK not complying. I suspect that a lot of this is down to a decision to adopt a “wait and see” approach rather than blind ignorance, as last-minute changes have already been made to the law and a catch-all template for dealing with it has yet to emerge.

E-Consultancy have compared how some of the most high-profile news sites have handled the situation and the results vary significantly. What’s most startling is that only the BBC site can be confident of complying with the law.

So why, when we’ve all had so long to prepare, is it proving so difficult for webmasters to allow users to opt in or out of cookies?

The law is problematic on several fronts. First of all, the ICO admit that they’re not sure how it should be implemented. That’s not a good start! Secondly, the general public are not well informed about what a cookie is, and it’s not really the job of a site selling holidays (for example) to try to sum up what this concept means to their visitors without the existence of one clear resource out there for everyone to refer to. Thirdly, allowing users to easily disable cookies is the easiest way to be certain of compliance but nobody wants to do this as it will stop their site functioning properly! It’s a catch-22 situation.

In their attempts to tackle this problem, sites have resorted to pop-up banners, lightboxes, GUI boxes, Javascript applets and other similarly inaccessible and undesirable elements of web design that usability experts have been campaigning to consign to the dustbin for the last decade. In a further touch of irony, most of these intrusive elements are unable to remember my decision to accept cookies as to do so would itself involve storing a cookie! So I get the same annoying pop-ups each time I visit a site.

Hopefully this will settle down within the next few months, but a more direct lead from the ICO would be appreciated on this one rather than the mass crowd sourcing experiment that’s inadvertently happening just now.