Critical Section

The Traffic School Web Usability Test

Monday,  04/30/07  10:00 PM

So, the other day I got a traffic ticket.  (It was boring, 65 in a 50 zone near my house.  Sorry.)

Fortunately, I was able to ask the court for traffic school so the ticket won’t go on my permanent record.  This is especially fortunate because one measly ticket would mean I’d have to start robbing banks to pay for my car insurance.  But I digress.

Now, the LA County Courts have accredited a number of online traffic schools.  I’ve done this before, you pay a fee (typically about $20), read a bunch of online pages, answer questions to show you’ve read the pages, and after a couple of hours, poof, you’ve done the equivalent of an eight hour traffic school.  (BTW I think this is a good thing, sitting in a physical traffic school all day on a Saturday leads to serious brain damage - from the other students if not from the instructor - this way you really do read about traffic laws and such, and no brain cells are harmed.)  Anyway as I said there are a number of these schools, a large number.  So which to pick?

This turned into an interesting exercise in web usability.  There are quite a variety of designs represented among the various schools, from the austere to the gaudy, and from the professional to the distinctly “my son did this for a high school project”.  (e.g. this one.  Oh, and this one gets the “look Ma, I know how to use a table” award – I’m surprised they don’t have a “works best with Netscape” badge.) 

So what are my criteria? 

At the highest level, I want the site to work (!), I don’t want to pick some weird school which is about to go out of business, or whose servers go down when the neighbor’s air conditioning kicks on.  Or which doesn’t support Firefox.  Or which is going to require me to install some odd browser plug in.  Etc.  There is a kind of pass/fail to this, either site looks professional, or it doesn’t.  Even the URL of the site is a clue; a common URL like feels more professional than  

I also want it to be fast.  If there was a way to know the “average time taken by students to complete course”, that would be great.  Too bad that kind of stat isn’t available, and none of the sites even advertise that they’re fast, because you’re taking this in lieu of an eight hour class.  They use “easy” as a metaphor for “fast”, and maybe also to reassure you that you don’t have to be a computer person to figure it out.  However that kind of “easy” can also mean “dumb”, and I don’t really want to have my intelligence insulted for two hours.  So there’s a judgment call.  There’s even a traffic school for dummies.  Now who identifies with that?  (Oh, and here’s one if you’re lazy.  I am not making this up.  I can see myself in court now, telling the judge “yes, I did remember to mail in the completion certificate, I know I did”.)

Then, I am choosing nice looking pages.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we can all agree on ugly.  And some of these sites, we would all agree, are ugly.  In a W=UH way as well as a plain old U way.  Give me simple, with clean graphics, lots of white space, and I’m happy.  Give me this, and I can’t click on the back button fast enough.  Oh, speaking of back buttons, there was one site which, when I hit back, opened a new browser window to ask “do you really want to go back”?  Bzzzzz.  Get the hook.

Some of these sites seem to feature comedy, like the site will be funny, or something.  I must confess there is nothing funny about traffic school to me.  I have attended “comedy” traffic schools in the past, and other than some of the things said by idiot students, there was nothing remotely funny about them.  I am steering clear of comedy.  If I want to laugh, I’ll apply a VS 2005 service pack.

Then there was a site called  Good name, right?  That’s me, I’m skilled :)  The site is clean and they let you start the course before you have to pay.  Now that is a great idea, because it feels like there’s no investment to try it.  Of course once I’ve spent twenty minutes, I do have an investment, and if it isn’t awful, I’m likely to continue.  These guys feel like they’ve thought this through, I like it.  (On the other side of smart, we have this: Welcome to the Traffic Violator Internet Program.  That’s me, I’m a violator.  Back!)

I liked it when a site had a nice “how it works” summary.  You want to know what you’re in for; an overview is helpful.  I didn’t like it when the site didn’t even load.  (YMMV.)  That’s not a good sign.  Back!  And a definite don’t – sound in the home page (“look Ma, I can link a Wav file”).  Barf.  And back!

So in the end, although I found this site pretty compelling (not), I picked this one.  I’m not even sure why.  It isn’t the prettiest, not even.  But it seemed simple and fast, clean, no nonsense, with fast loading pages.  I started, and once I started, it felt like “okay, this is straightforward, no problem”.  One thing I really liked was that all the information fit into my browser, no scrolling.  And I liked that I could shift-click to the next page, so I had all the pages from a section up at once (so I could search them easily while taking the quiz at the end of the section).

The whole thing is kind of interesting when you ponder what does attract consumers to a product?  Somehow it seems like there is an expectation, and whichever meets the expectation best – with no surprises – wins.  Exceeding the expectation is even better.  At Intuit Scott Cook was famous for saying our goal was to delight the customer.  So I can’t say I am delighted with my choice of online traffic school, but still, there is an underlying feeling which is kind of like that.

So, what do our customers experience when they visit our company website?  Or maybe more importantly, when they use our product?  Does it meet their expectations?  Could there be a version with the same functionality which was significantly more compelling, that seemed easier?  It is not enough to make it work.  You have to make it great.  You have to delight the customer!  Because consumers have choices.  And back buttons :)

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