Shortcuts that slow you down

01Nov07

On most travel and trip planning sites, you can enter an address to find nearby hotels, restaurants, etc. In many cases, they also provide a drop-down menu listing popular attractions and destinations. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the locations in these lists don’t work properly. This leads to a variety of not-so-friendly errors, from “Please confirm your destination” (within a list of matching entries) to “Destination not found” (with no place to go but back to the beginning).

The designers of these sites certainly had the right goal in mind. They wanted to save users time and encourage browsing of venues in popular areas. But without the appropriate amount of testing, these shortcuts actually consume more of the user’s time, and hurt the overall experience. So, I’d propose a simple fix: Test any “shortcuts” you provide to make sure they work. (If you’re using a changing dataset like map and business data, you’ll probably need to do this regularly.) And if you find that it’s impossible to make the shortcut behave seamlessly (i.e. without extra user intervention), then consider re-branding it as a secondary tool, or removing it altogether.

In my travel example, the sheer quantity of data probably means that it’s impractical to test every attraction or point-of-interest. One approach is to only show the shortcut after the user has failed to enter a valid location several times in a row. Or, if you insist on keeping the shortcut on the initial search screen, use your historical log data to make choices automatically, instead of asking users to do so. Then you can show the relevant info on the results screen, e.g. “It looks like you’re searching for the ‘Art Institute’ in Chicago, but we also found matches in other cities. Click here to view more results.” In any event, shortcuts are a good idea — but make sure they actually do save users time, rather than creating extra work for them.



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