Sage websites: a study in poor user design

It’s lucky Sage have such a big name, because the usability of their websites are appalling. They have a professional appearance that gives an attractive first impression, unfortunately, it appears that they also left the build to graphic designers, as no self-respecting web designer would have built such a labyrinth of vague clues and disregard of convention.

Things the website should have avoided:

No phone number on homepage (Sage site) and cryptic options on the contact page
I want to buy some accounting software. I’m ready to buy. I just want to ask someone a few questions about which is the perfect one for me and then we’re away. I’ve got a very busy day on and don’t want to spend a long time hunting for information that might not be there, but a human rep should have to hand. But what is this? No phone number on the homepage? And it gets worse.

Click on the ‘contact’ button and you are confronted with four tabs of options. ‘Sales’ that’s what I want I guess, although from my point of view it’s not a sale, it’s a purchase. But I guess instead of trying to get into my shoes, as a smart company might want to, they are forcing me to get into theirs. Fine, sales. And FIVE phone numbers to chose from. FIVE! Count them! Now, am I ‘new to Sage’? Or is it a ‘general sales enquiry’. Well, both to be honest. Then under those ambiguous choices is a list of their products with yet another set of numbers. Perhaps the product I want is in that list – I don’t know, I’m three clicks in and haven’t been able to get any advice yet…

Constant Flash Movies (Sagepay site)
The central section of the website is constantly taken up with a distracting Flash movie. When I arrive at the site it bombards me with huge colourful splotches and non-information displayed at a 3-year-old’s reading speed, meaning it’s impossible to choose from any of the options and in fact even remember what you turned up there for in the first place. Even worse, it doesn’t end, but keeps repeating - presumably to hypnotize those who have the rest of the day to spend reading the trite ‘You can bank on us’ instead of getting on with something useful.
And there’s no relief, the attention seeking action continues on all pages, like a hyperactive child who climbs over the steering wheel while when you’re late for a meeting.

Disregard for conventions (Sage invoicing site)
So, you want to download Sage’s free invoicing package (which incidentally shows another weakness, as I have searched for invoicing software in the past, and remained blissfully unaware Sage offered such a thing). Great, go to the download page. Most of the text is grey, with occasional small pink phrases. Ah, you think – I know what it means when a few words are not a heading, but in a different colour to the rest of the text – that’s a link! Think again buster. They’re just there for decoration, and because the Sage site demands a toll in useless clicks. Fine, you think. But here is a big shiny button – it has a picture of an arrow pointing down at a hard drive, but most of all, it has the words ‘download now’ in big letters. This time I can really put the clues together. If I click on that, the download will start. Nuh uh uh! That will actually take you to a new page, but look, the same button is on this new page. Perhaps it will work now. Nope. It just makes the page jump about in a funny way. There are a lot of warnings about pop-ups, so maybe that’s the problem. Try cancelling popup blocker. Nothing. Try a different browser. Nada. Eventually you realize you have to fill in a form with all your details in order to download the ‘free’ software. By which point you’re practically forgotten who you are, let alone who owes you money.

Better hope your name is big enough
I could go on, but I’m already short on time having spent about 45 minutes exploring websites that should have taken me ten. I will probably still have to hold my nose and buy from Sage because my accountant tells me I have to and they are in the enviable position of being industry leaders. But if you are hoping to attract customers online, you’d better make sure you think about your customers a bit better than Sage, because if you make them jump through hoops and chase their tails like that, they’ll soon realize they’re barking up the wrong tree and find a better alternative.

What is Cross-Browser Compatibility?

Cross-browser compatibility is something that all decent web designers have to offer as standard, but most non-techie people are baffled by, and don’t realise they need, let alone know whether their web designer is doing or not. So what does it mean, in theory and in practice?
Well, anecdotal evidence shows that an awful lot of people don’t know what the word ‘browser’ means, which obviously starts the confusion. For those of you that don't know, your browser is essentially the programme you use to view the Internet. Many people don’t realise they have a choice (which is probably why there is still such a high prevalence of IE6, and so many web designers tearing their hair out). Microsoft has the largest share of the market, with its Internet Explorer that happens to come with Windows.
Coming up second is Firefox, an open source browser from Mozilla. After those two are Safari (Apple’s offering), Opera and now Google have brought out their own browser, called Chrome. All browsers are free, and can be downloaded from the Internet (see below for links).

To add to the confusion, the makers of these browsers regularly improve and update them and bring out new versions, hence IE6, IE7, IE8 etc being earlier and later versions of Internet Explorer.
If you’re not sure and want to know what browser and version you are using, click on this useful link: http://www.findmebyip.com/.
So now you’re all in the know about browsers, I guess you want to know what the problem with cross-browser compatibility is.
Well, the problem is that the different web browsers interpret things in different ways. Websites are written in ‘languages’ and that’s a useful analogy. The Internet 'speaks' in a foreign language. Let’s call it Hutmel. IE, Firefox, chrome etc have all learned Hutmel, but at different schools, and so when they translate the Hutmel into a language you can understand – or see – they each tell you something slightly different.
Now, there are standards – an Internationally accepted Hutmel dictionary if you will – set out by W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium), but there is no legal obligation to abide by them.
So certain major browsers don’t. They take the attitude that they might be able to improve on what the web designer was doing in a ‘I think what they meant to say...’ kind of way. This is all very well as far as it goes, but falls down as soon as there are other browsers who don’t take liberties with the language, as the same phrase can end up having different interpretations – and as we all know, that’s how wars are started.
So cross-browser compatibility is where web designers must build some sections of each website multiple times in order for it to appear the same in the different browsers. Ignore one browser and the website will look broken to those users.
There are probably over a hundred browsers (source) so it would be impractical for web designers to make sure each website was compatible with every single one. So we tend to concentrate on the Big Five – IE, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome.
One final thing - if your browser check showed up as IE6, you are using one of the least standards compliant browsers around – upgrade now for a faster, better experience and to save web designers’ hair!
If you’d like to see what sort of interpretations are possible, visit http://browsershots.org, enter a URL and see the results. If they all look the same, the website is cross browser compatible!