Browsing …

Looking at the website for the Leith Festival I was bothered, again, by the state of listings sites. I gave up trying to find interesting stuff on that website. You can display all the events on a single page but it’s hard to read and impossible to browse it like I wanted. It only took ten minutes flicking through the good old-fashioned paper brochure for the festival, a little folded A5 booklet — 30 pages at most, to find a set of events that I’ll probably end up going to.

I had this problem during the festival season last year and I expect it’ll be as bad this year, although the problem isn’t just with the festival sites. All I want from a listings website is the ability to really browse to see what’s going on. I find this impossible on most sites, I’ll try and outline the issues I normally have:

Don’t make me search.
I want a option to list everything. I don’t want to have to search for an event type, date, or artist. I don’t care how many results there are. is terrible for this, there’s no way to initiate any sort of browsing at all unless you use a search term.

Once you’ve provided an option to show everything it needs to be useful, that means not showing four hundred pages with five results to a page (like The List). That brings me to …

Think about your results page(s) and make them customisable
My ideal results page has a good number of events listed, with enough information to make a decision about each one. Perhaps 20 or so in a nice three column format. Ideally I don’t want to have to scroll to read them, but I’ll concede that point. The current layout of events (and even shopping) sites might hint that that sort of layout is difficult but you just have to look at how much information any major news site can cram onto a page to see how badly some listings are laid out.

Not everyone wants that sort of information, so make the pages customisable. At a minimum the user should be able to choose the number of results, ideally they should have the choice to select what extra information gets shown (blurb, times, similar shows, pictures, reviews, etc). In a perfect world there would be a choice of layout too.

Match the paper functionality first
I can do several things with a paper brochure that I can’t with most websites. I can flick back and forth between arbitrary pages to compare things, not just one page backwards or forwards. I can skip whole blocks of pages, and I can always turn the pages regardless of what I was reading at the time.

In comparison most website navigation is limited to the classic First / Previous / Next / Last set of buttons, and these are often put in an awkward place so you have to go looking for them if you’re not at the start or end of the listing. Let’s have more navigation buttons, and make sure they’re always on-screen if your page is scrollable. Add a mechanism for jumping between two marked pages, add a way to move by a selectable number of pages.

There are other things I can do with the paper version, I can mark entries I like, scribble notes beside things, dog-ear pages that interest me, even rip out a page and stick it on the fridge. Whilst that last one is a challenge there should be a print/e-mail option for each page of results. Many sites allow you to mark entries (normally as ‘favourites’) and some allow you to take notes, but most force you to click through to an events page to do so. I should be able to take notes and make marks on the results page — just like starring/unstarring messages in GMail.

Then add in all the extra features
I’m not trying to get rid of the extra features and functionality of these sites, I just don’t think they should replace the basic functionality the site is looking to emulate. You need a strong foundation to build upon. Then you can add in searches, preferably a simple search and, if useful, a more fully-featured advanced one.

Advanced search could borrow functionality from the some of the new online calendars, if I can add a calendar event by typing “Dinner at Howies, 7pm Saturday” and it extracts the time/date and location automatically I don’t see why I can’t search with something like “Comedy after 9pm Saturday” or “Play at lunchtime, weekdays”.

Then you can go to town on the recommendations, the randomly selected shows, the “people who like X also like Y” and all the other tools to help people find what they’re looking for.

From there you can look at really leveraging the web, tying the system into the other social websites out there, integrating things into peoples calendars, blogs, and e-mail. Expand into other technologies with e-tickets and mobile phone services.

Am I asking too much ? None of the listings sites I use come close to the sort of usability I’d like to see, maybe Edinburgh is badly served in this respect but I suspect the problem is with web designers getting carried away with what they can do and never really using the sites they design to work out what they should do.

The fact that many of these sites have a monopoly for the online ticketing of their events means that there’s not much pressure to change, I just think they might encourage more sales with an easier to use website. They’d certainly save money on manning their phone lines and printing their brochures if more people could be convinced to use their website.

Maybe it just takes someone to lead the way, the first decently usable listings site will inevitably pull the others up to the same standard eventually. I guess that’s the point where I should stop ranting about it and go knock up a demo …

One Response to “Browsing …”

  1. UnorthodoxY » Blog Archive » Edinburgh Festival Fringe Programme now available — with bonus website rant Says:

    […] Since I ranted about ticket and event sites, I think it’s only fair I should take the time to look over this one and see if it improves on last year. My comments are after the jump, I’ll save any thoughts about the shows themselves for a separate post once I’ve looked at the programme in detail. First I must take back something I said in my earlier post, you can do a ’show me everything’ search. In fact it’s the default on the ‘advanced search‘ page. That puts the results three clicks from the main page and it’s far from intuitive, but at least it’s possible. Your search has found a total of 1941 results: Please click on the alphabet links to view more pages of results matching your search. […]