23 July 2004 2 pm est

The New Samaritans

In “Changing the Face of Web Surfing” (Wired News, 20 July 2004), reporter Robert Andrews, who interviewed me for the piece, summarizes an emerging “good samaritan” phenomenon in which independent web designer/developers, frustrated by a hard-to-use or inaccessible site, voluntarily rework the site in question, “right under embarrassed proprietors’ noses.” The work, typically performed for free, most often focuses on front-end improvements to key top-level pages. Such makeovers form a roadmap for turning a confusing or inaccessible or bloated site into a more usable, accessible, and streamlined one. Yet rarely do potential corporate benefactors take advantage of the free work done on their behalf — for reasons to be discussed in a moment.


The practice dates back at least as far as A List Apart Issue 99 (16 February 2001), in which J. David Eisenberg quickly reworked Yahoo! Weather to use CSS in place of cumbersome nested tables. More current gratis makeovers include Noel D. Jackson’s retooling of web publisher Nick Denton’s Fleshbot, and Daniel M. Frommelt’s authorized two-part (1, 2) Slashdot facelift for ALA. There are many others. Until recently, Chicago’s brilliant 37signals team published Design Not Found, a blog in which they uncovered usability errors in popular commercial sites, and showed how to fix them at no charge to the sites’ owners. (Design Not Found now redirects to the agency’s site for its excellent New Riders tome, Defensive Design for the Web.)

Mr Andrews’s Wired article highlights Oxford University math graduate Matthew Somerville’s efforts to convert the site of UK cinemas chain Odeon into something more useful and accessible than what the company offered its customers. According to Andrews, Odeon initially reacted favorably to the free work done on its behalf (even going so far as to fix some its site’s worst bugs) before turning tail and threatening the unpaid consultant with legal action.


Mr Somerville did Odeon a favor by solving some of the site’s worst problems — problems that will prevent an unknown number of potential customers from using the Odeon site to fulfill Odeon’s business goal of selling movie tickets. Odeon’s marketing people seem to have been unaware of the ways in which their site’s design and construction frustrated would-be ticket buyers, thereby defeating the site’s primary business purpose. Mr Somerville’s prototype showed the way to solve these problems. The company could easily have spent six figures learning the same thing from a consultancy that specializes in usable, accessible interface design. Mr Somerville did the work for free. Odeon’s response was to slam him with a cease-and-desist.

The existing site fails in terms of best practices; its inaccessibility is but one aspect of its general unfriendliness to consumers. Not only is Odeon.co.uk inaccessible to people with disabilities, it is also entirely useless to non-disabled people using fast, standards-compliant browsers such as Mozilla Firefox or Apple’s Safari. Even in browsers whose proprietary requirements it was tailored to support, the site gets in its own way.


In all browsers, the initial screen consists of a large, frequently updated promotional image currently touting Will Smith sci-fi actioner I Robot. Last week the tout panel pushed Spider-Man 2, a PC game sampler, and the chance to win an annual cinema pass. There is no alternative text, so if the image doesn’t load — for instance, if you’ve turned off images because you have a slow, dial-up connection and pay by the minute — you’ll have no idea what the site was trying to tell (or sell) you.

The large image is theoretically powered by an underlying image map (markup that loads different pages depending on which part of the image a user clicks), but the image map has been created in such a way as to be inaccessible. If you can’t click, you can’t enter the site.

At the bottom of the image, tiny text describes what the site theoretically allows users to do (“book cinema tickets online...”), but the text contains no links, so some potential customers will still be out of luck. The very idea that the first page of a commerce site touts secondary content (such as a PC game sampler tie-in) instead of plunging the user into the ticket-buying experience is a textbook case of poor usability.

If the image loads and you are able to click it, a new screen appears, which consists of a background image. At that point in your journey toward ticket purchasing fulfillment, one of two things will happen:

  1. If your browser doesn’t disable automatic popup windows, and if it supports JavaScript, and if you have JavaScript turned on, you can begin looking for tickets.
  2. If you’re using a browser that disables automatic popup windows to cut down on ads, spam, and pornography, nothing happens and the site is useless. Browsers that can natively disable automatic popup windows include Opera, Safari, and Mozilla. IE/Windows can do the same thing via readily-available third-party tools. By placing its primary content in a JavaScript-triggered automatic popup window which an increasing number of browsers won’t show, the site cuts off potential customers for no reason that makes any kind of business sense.

This is simply a quick sketch of barriers the site places between potential customers and their goal of buying tickets the company wants to sell them.


So if Mr Somerville showed Odeon how to get out of its own way, let alone how to avoid falling afoul of UK accessibility laws, why didn’t Odeon thank him and use his work?

The knee-jerk answer (“Clueless business dweebs don’t get it”) may give those who spout it a warm feeling of superiority, but the truth is that most businesses, for reasons of liability, simply can’t accept unsolicited work. When a company hires a consultancy, its does so under the terms of a contract that specifies such things as who owns the work and what remedies each side may take if problems arise. Few CEOs (even smart ones) would be comfortable rebuilding their property according to plans developed by an unknown individual, for no money, with no contractual assurance of workmanship and ownership rights.

And after all, in the case of Odeon, if the company’s marketing people weren’t informed enough to request an accessible, usable site from their original vendors, how are they to evaluate the quality and durability of work done for free by a young post-graduate?

As it turns out, Odeon has hired a consultancy that specializes in the very work Mr Somerville did free. But even if they hadn’t done so, the publicity surrounding the story is likely to prompt the owners of unrelated sites to nervously question their own web properties’ usability, accessibility, and compliance, and to consider hiring firms that can deliver what they need. In this way — even if their work is rejected by those for whom it was performed — the new samaritans are changing the web for the better.

Previously in The Daily Report...

Five things I know about me
Collect them all.
Faces We Love: Heine’s Tribute
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The Contender
Last tango.
Architectural Digest vs. This Old House
How vs. why in web design. (ALA No. 184 and drop-down menus.) When web designers discuss their craft, they almost always focus on how to do a thing, rather than what things should or should not be done. As an industry, we are more like “This Old House” than Architectural Digest.
Production for Use
To understand and evaluate any design, you must consider the use context for which it was created. A case study and lessons therein. The beginnings of a broader approach to understanding web and interface design (including the relative importance of web standards).
Clarendon is the new Helvetica
The quirky slab serif has been quietly undergoing a renaissance similar to that enjoyed by Helvetica in the 1990s.
The Andy Kaufman Effect
On the web, nobody knows you’re not the dog you pretend to be.
Hot socks from Reboot
Three favorites from the May 1st Reboot. These sites might stimulate your creativity.
Blog This
Now anyone, at virtually any experience level, can own and manage an attractive and standards-compliant personal site. With input from Adaptive Path and Stopdesign, Blogger reinvents itself (and we lend a hand).