Usability nightmare of the year

Edinburgh University Library’s Charting The Nation is possibly the worst-designed website I have encountered this year. The website is a digital archive of historic maps of Scotland the library holds in its collection, which make this not just a shoddy website, but a genuine crime against education.

For starters, there’s some god-awful code that restricts any browser that isn’t IE or Mozilla from accessing the site at all (hard luck, Opera fans). Then, once you get in, you either have the choice of a Java client to look at the maps, or some hideous, hideous piece of crap called the “Insight? Browser” (mocking tagline: It utilises any typical web browser, having already barred “unsuitable” users). This basically does what any piece of web image gallery software does, but a lot more appallingly.

For starters, it insists on launching a popup window to display the gallery in, which means anyone with a popup blocker is unable to access it. If you want to change your popup blocker settings to allow it, then tough. In a staggering act of usability madness, the error message telling you to turn off your blocker calls window.back(); when you click ‘OK’, thus jumping you straight to the previous page, meaning the “click here to change settings” bar for the popup blocker in Firefox or IE promptly vanishes.

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The thumbnail gallery at the start. This image links to a Flickr page with some notes showing which bits are wrong.

Once you disable your popup blocker the long way (sigh…) and launch the gallery (which expands an unresizable window to occupy the whole screen – thanks guys), you can actually get the maps. Well, kinda. A single click on the thumbnail loads a slightly larger thumbnail in the left hand column and some metadata. It took me a whole to figure out you have to double-click the thumbnail to get the full expanded version, which comes in another popup window, which itself has an unintuitive and fiddly interface: To zoom in and out of the image, you have to first click on a magnifying glass icon, then click on the picture (why?). No indication of current scale is given, and if you zoom in so that the image is bigger than the window, you’re given a ridiculously tiny thumbnail which is meant to help you navigate, but fails. There’s also a chance to look at the accompanying notes, which (you guessed it) appear in yet another popup, and repeats exactly the metadata supplied in the main gallery.

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The popups for when you (double) click a thumbnail. This also has a Flickr page with extra notes.

Added to this is a set of unpredictable and annoying window code, which opens windows and shifts focus in an alarmingly illogical manner, and bugs galore (buttons and text fields disappear for no good reason, the double-click thing breaks after a while) and you get a truly appalling interface. I won’t even get started on the confusing search function.

In this case, it’s a real crying shame; these maps are wonderful things and deserve as much public attention as they can get, but any poor soul using this would quickly get deterred from browsing the collection. The villains of the piece are Luna Imaging, who happily sell this rubbish to museums and galleries the world over that are desperate to get on the digitisation badwagon.

All that was needed for this project, really, was a web image gallery package, which can handle multiple resolutions of images, with the ability to bolt on some extra custom fields (authors, date, notes etc.). There are too many open source versions of these for me to list. Hell, they could get 90% of the functionality they wanted out of this by using Flickr. Instead, they opted for some horrible crufty, standards-breaking, near-unusable proprietary rubbish that locks away what could be a really useful and educational resource.

3 thoughts on “Usability nightmare of the year

  1. You could always have a go at improving the interface with greasemonkey.

    Various local authorities in Tyne and Wear launched a site called Sitelines giving you access to a database of archaeological records. However it was a right pita to look things up so I fixed it. Obviously the site you mention will need a more complex script but it sounds like it needs doing.

    That’s what I like most about greasemonkey – you can fix other people’s cruft.

  2. Wow, this is a disaster. Along with all of the faults you mention, there’s no way for someone to link to a specific image. What drives me nuts is how sites like these want to hide their content away deep in these sites instead of making them more freely available. They go out of their way to purposefully make it impossible to link to and use these resources in other settings.

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