Usability fail: timesplus.co.uk – the new Times Premium Content site

By Matt Cornock

A few months back, you may remember the heads-up that Murdoch was going to make parts of the Times newspaper website pay-per-click. Essentially, requiring paid-for subscription to access news material (exclusives, popular, etc.). We will refer to this content as ‘premium content’. They have started their free trials, so when you attempt to view popular material like the latest Times Good University Guide 2011, unfortunately some strange things happen. This post highlights some of the major issues, along with suggested solutions.

Problem 1: The Unknowing User

The first, and in my view, most significant problem is that the new premium content is not indicated or referred to at all as a restricted service. The terms used are ‘membership’ and ‘Times Plus’, however the user has to have prior knowledge of the fact that the Times was locking down some content to make sense of it all. It’s not surprising, as if people were immediately told, then they’d go elsewhere. However, if Times are going down the restricted access route, they need to make it obvious to the user. We’ll pick up on this more in the next two problems.

Solution: Refer to premium content as ‘premium’ or ‘membership only’ or ‘subscription only’ content.

Problem 2: The Uninvited Redirect

I went to the Times Online education page (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/) and clicked on the link to the guide. I suddenly found myself thrown to the new Times Plus website which itself resides on two addresses(www.timesplus.co.uk aka www.thetimes.co.uk). 

Solution: An icon or something next to all links which shift the user to premium content. Here, you can use this: £ - pound icon

Problem 3: The Pretentious Popup

When you reach content that requires you to be a member of Times Plus, you are presented with an almost-full-screen popup. This popup is dramatic. It very much resembles some of the more recent popup adverts, dimming the main page in the ‘lightbox’ effect. As I’m sure Murdoch and the Times team would sue me for copyright, I’ve created a similar, but not identical, and merely coincidental example of the type of popup that may just appear, for critical and educational puposes only:

 Popup example: huge, dramatic image. Three boxes below. One for finding out more info, but not giving what it's about. Middle box for inviting exclusive membership. Third box for the log in for existing members.

 As you will notice from my pithy mock-up, the popup itself still doesn’t indicate clearly that this popup is to access premium content and the link that was just clicked leads to premium content. It looks too much like an advert (I even clicked it as immediately as it appeared because I’m an impatient sort of fool).

p.s. It’s also not accessible for text-only browsers like WebbIE and you have no chance if you can’t use JavaScript. Those using screen magnifiers will also be thrown.

Solution: Add in clearly that signing up is required to access this content. Make this a webpage, not a popup.

Problem 4: The ‘s’ in https://

On the sign up forms, unfortunately some aspects (I think it was the javascript form validator, but cannot be sure) do not reside on a secure (https) server. This produces the ever-so-encouraging security box in IE:

IE alert: Do you want to view only the webpage content that was delivered securely?

This is actually one of the most user unfriendly alerts IE can throw, as most (including me) ignore that it’s referring to show only secure content, click ‘Yes’, and have pain of an experience when images or JavaScript fail to appear later on. Depending on the site, what’s actually needed to be pressed is ‘No’. Avoiding this alert appearing is an essential step for web developers.

Solution: Make sure everything comes from the secure server.

Problem 5: Deluge of Personal Details

When you get to the sign up form, the Times wants your details. All of them. Even for the free trial, you are required to submit pretty much 90% of what’s required to open a bank account. Had I not a desperate need for the information for my job, I simply would have given up at this point. Instead, I entered a load of fake details as I really don’t see why the Times or Murdoch needs them. When asking for user details, make it clear the benefit to the user of submitting these personal details.

Solution: Cut the personal data requests, consider what’s actually needed.

Problem 6: The Form that Foils

I have to say, even if you have decided to complete the form, you may end up in a circle of death, forever being returned to the sign up form. I don’t know if this was just for me, but I repeatedly was shown the sign up form, even after completing it three times. I also did not receive the email to say I had access, however after a browser restart, lo and behold I had access to the premium content. Minor technical issues happen on websites, so I trust this will be resolved soon anyway.

Solution: Test everything. Then test it again.

Summary

There are some problems here, but all can be resolved. Do not despair.

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