The antithesis of all we hope to achieve

Saturday 13th Mar 2010

All I wanted was an aerial photo of New York for a layout idea I had. I thought, “I know! The USGS will have lots of pictures, and it’s all public domain!” So off I go, expecting to have a suitable image within a couple of minutes and I’ll be working on my design. But no, it wasn’t as simple as that.

I get the USGS website up. Scan around. Ah, “Maps, Imagery and Publications”. That looks like it’s the right one. Main nav, too. Click. Ooh, lots of options. “Get aerial photos”. That’s what I need. Click. Hmm. Now I have to choose based on a mix of bureaucratic criteria. OK, “Historical photographs” looks like what I’m after. Click. Uhh. Ah! “Search and download”. Oh, it’s a link down the page. Oh dear, something in CamelCase. EarthExplorer and something about a dataset. Sigh. OK, if you must. Click. Ooh, 4 messages! For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have. Gosh, could they have put a few more acronyms in there? Wanna see it? Cliquez ici. Though by default it looks more like this.

So, ignoring the left hand nav, I type in what I’m after, ‘New York’. OK, I’ve met this pattern before, it’s a bit clumsy, but I click the search next to that box and I get, yes, places that match. It’s pre-validation. Fine. I leave all the other options as they are, and click the big search up at the right. Click.

“You must select at least one dataset before continuing”

Huh? What? Click OK. I scan around. For the first time notice the numbers on the headings. It’s not left-hand nav on the left. It looks like it, it’s laid out like it, so I ignored it because I’d already got to the page I wanted, right? No, they must have realised it was broken and decided that sticking numbers on would solve it, which it didn’t, not one bit. People aren’t going to notice that something says “2” and look for “1” on an interface like this — there’s simply so much noise that anything that doesn’t look important and doesn’t immediately make sense will be ignored. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just the way our eye-brain systems work. So, I get it now, you want me to pick some of these things. Where’s “Select all”? There isn’t one? OK. There are plus expandy-things. Click. Checkboxes. Click. Er, what the fuck?

In Safari and Firefox I’ve got popups set to open in a new tab so it just looks like it opens a whole new page with a big, unstyled, scary-looking form. Then it’s gone! Woah! It’s a popup that opens, gives you a glimpse of unpleasantness, then closes itself again! What is this? It’s like some diabolical taunt. It happens every, time, you, click, a, checkbox. Click. Wait. Click. Wait. Click. Wait. Click. Wait… on and on….

And what’s with those checkboxes? I neither know nor care what ASAS, DOQ, NAPP, NHAP, SLAR or the rest are. I just want an aerial photo of New York. It reminds me of trying to find images on NASA’s site, and it insists you know what shuttle mission the photo was taken on — begging the response, “Well if I knew that I probably wouldn’t even be searching for it…”. Utterly, utterly ridiculous. Still, I make sure that I click all the ones that are free. I didn’t see any that said you have to pay for them, but still, this isn’t a commercial project I’m doing, so I don’t want to fork out image library prices for it just yet.

So I’ve clicked 20. I figure that’ll be enough to get some kind of result, but that’s time I’m just not going to get back, people. It’s painful. I click the big search link again. No error this time. Woohoo. Oh. “Results summary”. It’s a table, with all those checkbox labels, and “0 of ?” next to each one. Oh, it’s going to refresh every 10 seconds and tell me how many results there are! Fancy that. I wait until it looks like it’s done. There are links at the bottom for “Results” or “Redefine criteria”. Redefine criteria? After all that? Not on your life. Click results. A couple of things, but the table shows there must be quite a few, so that “Results” link apparently only shows you the first thing in the table, not all of them. That’s annoying. Fully expecting everything to have been lost and have to start again, I click “Back” in the browser. Oh, it’s still there, phew. That’s the only nice surprise I’ve had with this dreadful system so far. Each line in the table has a link next to it, so I open each of those in new tabs. There’s a promising image! At last! Click “Show”. Oh. No, that just shows where it is on a map — surely redundant for a photo of Manhattan Island? Ah, there’s a download link. Click. Oh.

“Sign in using your USGS registered user name and password”

Well, let’s have a look at the registration form, where I will “begin by initiating the registration process”. Jeez, just try and make it sound unappealing, why don’t you? I can barely wait. Here goes. Username, password, retype password and… secret question? It’s the usual set of questions your bank might ask, mother’s maiden name, first school and all that. I’m sorry, USGS, but I’m not giving you information like that. So I pick the first and give a stock answer. Next. No, sorry, “Submit and continue”. Submit to us, worthless human! Click.

Oh. Good lord!

For crying out loud! I question why they need any of this information, even first name and surname. I haven’t bought anything yet, nor am I intending to — remember that I only selected free images? I don’t want, or need, anything shipped. I could appreciate why they’d want to know where the image will be used, but to make that compulsory? Huh? This form is a nightmare — there’s no thought put into what the user wants or needs to do, it looks like it’s driven by what some department of USGS would like to know. If any of this is needed, ask for it when it is needed, and remember who the customer is. I didn’t have to give my bank this much information!

That’s not all, either, there’s a strong implication here that this is page 1 from a lengthy and typing-filled registration process. Now I understand the use of “initiate” to link to the registration process, as the idea of completing it is a distant, forlorn hope.

I give up. I’ll find an image elsewhere.

If anyone from USGS is reading, I’m a highly experienced online designer — user experience, usability and making things easy and beautiful to use are my things. My rates are quite reasonable too. Hint, hint.