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.

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Beeb fail

21 09 2011

Just found the beta version of the new BBC homepage. Not impressed. It’s still a big mess of content and is now full of horrible Javascript sliding windows in an attempt to fit even more onto the homepage! Pick a purpose and stick with it – that would be my advice. The new design seems to ape Sky’s website, with so much of the content pointing people towards watching TV programmes and “prime products” like Strictly Come Dancing given top billing to attract the most visitors.

Although the BBC is primarily a broadcaster of TV and radio, people have become used to the site as a source for news, sport, weather and advice. The new design seems determined to sideline these requirements and direct people towards their TV content – when you click on “lifestyle”, four out of the seven featured links take you directly to iplayer content without an explicit warning that this will happen. If I’m on a BBC main page I’m there to find something out or to read something, links to iplayer content have no chance of interesting me as I won’t have the time or the inclination to watch a half hour TV programme. Many people browse the BBC website as a part of their work, and links to blocked streaming content will only annoy them too.

Site navigation has been severely compromised by the multitude of options to explore content. Instead of the widely-recognised practice of using one or two main menus, the beta site now provides visitors with five areas that could be described as content menus, not counting the various widgets for weather, listings and popular content. This seems like a strange decision given the current feeling among content designers is to make design more minimal and cut down the homepage to a user’s top 10 tasks.

imagine I’m on the BBC website looking for a scone recipe. I look at the main navigation along the top: news, weather, sport, iplayer, tv, radio…no joy there. I endure the sliding menu screen but it offers me nothing. I click on lifestyle along the middle of the page and then on Great British Bakeoff and it takes me straight to iplayer to watch the programme. I’m starting to get annoyed now…assuming I’ve stayed on the page this long, I continue to scroll down and find the area I’m looking for along the bottom right-hand side of the page – the least visible section of any webpage! I click on food, expecting to find a simple gateway to their food section but again I’m disappointed – the food section has another horrendous Javascript window design and it keeps trying to push me towards content I’m not interested in. I have to wade through the prominently-featured easy pasta recipes, newsletter, sausage casserole, roast chicken, editors’ picks, food blogs…then finally I see the recipe finder, again hidden below the fold of the page and on the right-hand side.

This example highlights the most important failing of the new design. People generally visit a website for a specific purpose. They want to accomplish this goal as quickly and easily as possible. What they don’t want is for the site to hinder their journey by attempting to “hijack” their visit at every turn with flashy adverts, poor navigation and promoted content. I can’t see any rationale behind the BBC’s proposed redesign other than a wish to promote the TV channels and increase viewing figures. If this is true, then it’s a great shame; as I’ve pointed out before, the BBC has a great opportunity to provide us with a superb web service, but it seems unlikely to become reality in the near future.