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The web was once a textual place, its origins in SGML and academia. Then they invented programming toys, and along came the script kiddies.

Over the last 20 years, we've received a plethora of new languages and scripting tools. Some, like PHP and MySQL, allowed us to start building useful applications that added to the availability of information - the main purpose of web pages being the transfer of information.

But sadly, then came the graphic artists, and the marketing people. Together they pushed for more 'content rich' (AKA "pretty") sites. What we didn't get was an equal amount of talent and time dedicated to the man-machine interface.

Back in the 90's, when web pages were still relatively new for most large corporations, I sat through endless 'user interaction' lab tests, where we brought in members of the public to check that they could find the content they needed, without the need to call our support line. We studied things like whether a particular link should be on the left or right; whether a particular font made the content more or less readable; whether the color scheme worked for the large percentage of color-blind men, and many other factors. Underlying it all, was the need to have a simple, clear interface to the information - the reason the page was there.

Fast forward to today. We have AJAX, Javascript, jQuery, LightBox and whole bunch of other presentation-layer tools that programmers love. But what about the resulting web page? Here's an example from yesterday.

We use Comcast cable for internet (we don't have cable TV). I don't like the company, but it's the only high speed (now close to 50Mbps) service in the area. From time to time, I like to check on what DSL is doing. I'm not expecting that speed, but 20Mbps would be far more than we need. So I went to the centurylink web page to check on DSL pricing.

First off I get the usual explosion of advertising graphics, minus any real content. This is a national company, so much of their main page content does not relate to Albuquerque (though they surely know from my IP what market I'm in). But it's pretty. I find a link to get Internet pricing. Click the link, and a cute popup demands my full address, which i supply. It's going to give me 'customized pricing for my area'. I hit the submit button, then a blank screen. I wait. After about a minute I get this:

There is no Action mapped for namespace /freeRange/shop and action name

Now I know this isn't the pricing information for Albuquerque. This is a single line of plain text - an error message. The problem for me is that a customer should NEVER see such a message; this error should have been trapped, and the customer should see a nicely formatted "I'm sorry" page.

I try again - same response. Switch from Chrome to Firefox, fill in my full name and address (again)and voila! The page populates; so my original error message seems to be browser based. And now in Firefox a second, completely different form requires me to fill in my full address AGAIN so that the system can display my options. I persevere, and fill out my information again.

I wait. A new page comes up with some different packages I can select. The first is already selected and the price is displayed. I select a different one; no need to hit submit - by magic the pricing is going to change as I select different options, without me having to refresh the screen. And the pricing blinks, then comes back with the same figure. Yes, it turns out I can select three different levels of service, but they all cost the same. Someone's crazy here; either the page isn't displaying the correct price based on my selection, or they have customers willing to pay the same for 3Mbps, 7Mbps, and 12Mbps service...

I mark this as yet another FAIL in website design.

What they COULD have done, but didn't, is determine my geographic location by my IP, and on the first page displayed a simple list of pricing for all available packages. I would have found the information I wanted in just a couple of clicks, and could have compared the packages and pricing side-by-side on a single screen. But then what would all the graphics, marketing and script kiddies do all day?

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abqdan

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