Sunday, November 22, 2015

Search vs Hunt in Websites

I wasted forty minutes at a bank’s website last week. I needed to recharge a prepaid card. At login, there is a choice between the savings account login and prepaid card login. Which way do I go? The bank’s approach is to let the customer find out by trial and error. I tried the prepaid card login and discovered I could not do a recharge there. I found out the customer care number and called them. The support “executive” had no clue either. He told me that at login I should choose the prepaid card option. I told him that is exactly what I had tried, without any use. He told me to hold on and went off to get an answer. This business of consulting someone else took place three times and I had to hold on each time.
The first time he came back with borrowed wisdom, he asked me to log into my savings bank account. I did, and then had a question. Which tab do I select? He suggested that I go to “funds transfer” – a good guess, as I could perhaps transfer some money to my prepaid card as I transfer money to any other card. However, that did not work, so he went off to consult his colleague again. “There is a tab named Cards”, he said, “Click on that!” After bumbling around like this for quite some time, we finally discovered how to recharge the stupid card. He had been kind enough to stay on the line, suffering through all this with me. For the bank, this was not wasted employee time – it was probably free training provided by the customer!

This raises the question of the point and click model to tell a system what you want. It is very convenient, like a menu in some countries with photographs to guide the tourist who does not share a language with the staff. You find an item you recognize and point it out to the waiter; you get survive another day! This point and click model does not work when you have go through a hierarchical maze of tabs, making selection after selection without any clue till you get to see what you are looking for. In that situation, the “selection by search string” model works far better. For instance, Windows 10 has a slot at the bottom of the desktop labelled “Search the web and Windows”. If you type in “Hide rows in Excel sheet” and it takes you to your search engine, which gets you the answer – it may come from Microsoft websites or from someone else’s. You get a set of possible answers and can examine and select one. A great feature of this is that you are not restricted to a single word to say what you are looking for; many “help systems” force you to work under this restriction. It is like working with one hand strapped to the chair’s armrest! With a multi-word search string, you usually get the answer you are looking for in one shot.

How can a website, say a bank’s website, provide for access through a search string? Can the website let me click “Help” and type any of the search strings I list below as examples?
         Recharge prepaid card
         Register a new beneficiary for interbank funds transfer
         Form for requesting closure of account
         List of bank holidays in Delhi

I do not deny that the graphical user interface (GUI) involving icons, and point and click was a great invention; so is access to a webpage through the use of a multi-word search string. Like a screwdriver and a hammer, they are complementary. One does not replace the other.

HCI: Comment No. 4
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