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An Upsetting User Experience Due to Poor Web Site Usability

My approach to web site usability goes far beyond what you see on a web page. The lines between the Internet experience and off-line experience are blurred more and more as we adapt our lives to the technology we have available to us.

The user experience, both on and off-line, sometimes blend together. This is usually overlooked by web site designers who haven’t had the experiences or training to understand the ramifications of every element they put on a page. Every step, every instruction, every link to somewhere, every link label, every error message, every task that can’t be conducted or understood is a usability concern.

Sometimes the very decision to conduct tasks online becomes an issue.

Forcing Online Contact

I live in a state that attempts to force families to seek college financial aid assistance online. As a newbie parent to the world of college finances, I began the process when my daughter was accepted by one. The next step is to figure out how to pay for it.

I went online and the instructions suggested online filing for financial aid or coming into the college itself to get the paperwork. Because you must enter all of your private information, from social security numbers to tax records on the application, I didn’t want to feed that online to the state. It’s a personal preference.

In addition, as a user, my daughter has divorced parents who live in separate homes and don’t share personal information like finances, bank records, etc. with each other anymore. I thought I could fill out my part and there’d be a separate form for her Dad. Boy, was I ever stupid!

I went to the college to get the state’s paperwork, only to be told they don’t give it out. You HAVE to file for assistance online. I got into a fight with the receptionist over this because the web site said I could get the paperwork there. She didn’t believe me, so she called a superior, who had no idea what I was talking about.

image of two upset women

The woman, thankfully (likely to shut me up), asked to see what I was referring to. She showed me her computer screen and together, I showed her the page and their web site’s instructions that I could come in and get the paperwork. She was stunned and apologized and then told me she had none to give me. The state, she said, insists it be done online.

Still miffed, I asked her what divorced families do and she sighed and told me that “Pennsylvania doesn’t care” about that.

Doesn’t care about the user experience? Doesn’t care?

In my case, I get along famously with my “ex” and we have few secrets, but sharing financial information, including credit card debts, our spouses salaries, etc. is a bit unrealistic. We could do that damned form together online and swallow our issues because we love our daughter. But what insane person came up with the cruel idea of forcing families to file online for college financial aid?

How many college students get caught up in their parents’ issues? This is already a stressful time. Usability includes the emotional state of web site visitors and again, this is commonly ignored in the design of sites and forms.


The first problem in my experience was instructions on a web page that offered incorrect information, and it was compounded by an off-line experience of additional lack of communication. College staff weren’t aware of what their web site even said.

Their content writer wasn’t informed of proper procedures.

Their instructions about filing online should have clearly stated there’s no option and offered a way to contact someone who has issues with that. Is the form accessible? Was it ever tested? Is it a PDF? What if someone has no computer? What about privacy and security concerns? What about parents who don’t get along? Can you get separate passwords and log in so that information is hidden?

My questions were endless and the college web page, the very institution that wants my money, offers no guidance.

Web site usability is not a one way street. It’s not limited to color choices and organized navigation.

Try not to put something on there without first considering who is going to use it, why they may want to and why they can’t. Working web site usability is about a coherent user experience in some cases where the on and off-line tasks are connected by links and written communication.

Forcing a task to be performed in one way, with no alternatives, indicates poor end user research or worse, a complete and total turning of your back on their needs.


  1. January 12, 2008    

    I feel for you, Kim.

    By the way, as far as I know, Internet adoption rate in the US is still not 100% (about 70-80%?). Even due to this it isn’t very wise to limit application to online (those who don’t have a computer might need it more).

    You might argue that those, who go to college, usually have a computer, but it’d be still kinda risky.

    Did you send them a report on how to improve the application? :)

  2. January 13, 2008    

    Too bad such things happen. I’m seeing every day the other side of this issue: I live in a not so well developed country, and although I’d be happy to sort out some things online, it is not possible. In some cases, I need to provide some data on floppy disk to some state institutions which regulate small companies. Floppy disks?! My computers don’t even have a floppy hard anymore! But authorities don’t seem to care.

  3. January 21, 2008    

    I have a feeling of disappointment with such issues like those. It seems that our technology is getting wider but not polished..(w/ regards to accessibility and usability)

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