Corporate Eye

Down the Garden Path: Anatomy of an Unfortunate User Experience

Obstacle Course

I recently took a rather twisty trip through the website of a “membership organization, think tank and educational resource.”  I was trying to access a report,  and since I do that sort of thing a lot—for an assortment of different topics I write about– I’m pretty accustomed to the various strategies utilized to extract (a) information about me, and (b) money from me.  But some extra challenges made this attempt worth a post.

The following comments are not about this particular organization, which is not only respectable but also provides value.  It’s just that their website offers an excellent example of the “unfortunate user experience.”

Here’s what happened:

  • I went through the registration process in order to access a specific report.  I wasn’t surprised when it turned out (many screens later) that the report itself wasn’t accessible under the “free” membership level.
  • But I persisted, and it turned out that a briefing-style version of the report is in fact free.  Actually, there are several kinds of free content available on the site, some of it high-value.  But!  You don’t know this until you try accessing a variety of items, and occasionally stumble on something you can view without charge.
  • For some types of free content, including the briefing I was trying to see, you still have to put the item in a “cart” and go through a “check-out” process.  There’s no charge, but every time you “buy” a free content item, the system sends you an email confirming the “purchase.”  And of course you are offered frequent opportunities to “upgrade” your membership.
  • Finally (although I could go on for much longer), the briefing turned out to be in slide format.  Not a problem in itself, but the page is arranged so awkwardly (due to a humongous–yet pointless!–banner at the top) that you have to scroll far down even to see the slide.  And you have to do that for EVERY SLIDE, because the slideshow does not play automatically.  The slide display is a fixed size (quite large), which means you have to scroll down even further after viewing a slide in order to see the notes (which contain most of the information).

Now here’s why all that is important—and relevant.  This website committed several offenses against the user, and the organization lost brand credibility in the process.  Notably:

  1. Expectations violation. At the beginning I thought of the organization as an information resource, but by the end of my visit, I thought of it mainly as marketing machine.  And a dysfunctional one, at that.  Did I mention that the “new member orientation” slideshow did not work?
  2. 2. Unnecessary inconvenience. And did I mention that every single thing you do on this site results in opening a new tab?  (At least in Firefox—didn’t test in IE.)  In trying to register and access just one report, I ended up with about a dozen tabs.  And that’s only a single example from a series of challenges encountered during the visit.  Each was relatively minor in itself, but they added up to a significant level of aggravation.
  3. Mixed messaging. By the end of my visit I had been exposed to many labels, logos, and taglines, but had no idea about the actual purpose of the organization.  Every page I visited delivered a different message—and returning to the home page provided no help.  It is so crammed with links (including literally dozens of sponsor badges) and things to buy or sign up for that I still cannot tell you what their essential value proposition(s) is/are.

Your company’s Careers site is probably not in danger of seeming too much like a store.  But it may well be violating expectations in other ways, as well as causing unnecessary inconvenience and delivering mixed messages.   Those failings won’t deter people who need a job from searching the posted openings.  However, they will be a discouragement for quality candidates in search of career opportunities with a quality company.

The site I’ve been critiquing actually had some very good information to offer, once I figured out how to work the system.  So I’ll visit again—but I won’t look forward to it.

(The illustration is a plan view of the garden at Chateau de Choisy, a seventeenth-century French palace.)

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.