Two years ago, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation was operating what could easily be one of the clunkiest websites in the world — the user interface was poor; page changeovers were horribly designed; infrastructure was clearly not equipped to handle demand, because logins would time out under the load or connections would drop during bookings.
IRCTC then announced a major re-launch of its website, saying it planned to invest ₹100 crore on improvements. Today, the site is more stable but the clunky user interface continues.
Travellers are still expected to know the names of destinations that only the Railways uses — not the other way around. Try booking a ticket to Kolhapur. You won’t be able, to because this important town — home to one of the most sacred temples in Maharashtra — is not even listed.
Well, it is, but you will have to search the Internet to learn that the official Indian Railways’ name is C Shahumaharaj Train Station. Couldn’t the website designers add the word 'Kolhapur' in the dropdown?
That’s not all.
On the IRCTC booking page, where you list passenger details, age and gender are important columns. Suppose a person in your travelling party is a woman aged 74, a separate column asks if this person is a ‘Senior Citizen’. Can’t the site figure this out automatically? If, by error, you don’t select “yes” to the Senior Citizen question, get this — the site denies you the discount given to senior citizens, and this information doesn’t come to light until after the transaction is complete!
How thoughtless, or perhaps, by design, sly! An IRCTC agent told me later that unless you specifically ask for the Senior Citizen discount, you don’t get it, even if the traveller qualifies. Nor can it be retroactively granted. Isn’t this deceptive marketing? Not if the government does it, I suppose.
The IRCTC seat selection process is still a nightmare. You can prefer a lower berth by checking a radio button, but unless you choose a second button that forbids the system from booking a ticket if at least one lower berth is not assigned, your original preference is simply ignored.
Why can’t the system show a seat map, like the airline websites do, where you choose the seats of your preference? And the booking codes are simply ridiculous — GNWL, PQWL, RAC, CNF. How does the site expect a user to decipher this alphabet soup when the clock on the connection is ticking? Is this what the public got for an investment of ₹100 crore?
A month ago, I was trying to book a bus from Hyderabad to Bangalore on APSRTC. I knew that the Garuda Volvo service was a popular option and went to the APSRTC website. The site repeatedly kept telling me that buses no longer ply on the route. Frustrated, I chose a more modest, semi-luxury option. This too came back empty.
It was several minutes later that I remembered that the State had partitioned into AP and Telangana. After searching the Internet, I found the TSRTC website and everything worked just fine. But couldn’t the APSRTC website ask a simple question or redirect me to the TSRTC website?
This week, I tried to NEFT a friend using the Karnataka Bank website after business hours. There were two options on the NEFT page — one that instantly completes the transaction (during NEFT business hours) and the second, where you can schedule the transaction for a future date.
I chose the second option, filled in the date and went through the whole process of securing the OTP and keying in the transaction password — only to see that the transaction had failed. My unpardonable mistake? I had forgotten to select the radio button for the second option. Are the website designers really that thick? Can’t they see that if a person takes the trouble to fill in a future date, the intent of the person is clear?
Then, there are websites that use too many pictures and display ads on their pages. Take Pinkvilla, for instance. Even with extremely high broadband speeds, the site takes an inordinately long time to load all of its content. How can those with much slower internet speeds ever have the patience to wait? Do the website creators even know what lean website design is?
If they don’t, all they have to do is to go to the Google homepage — the leanest web page in the world (A tip for users who visit ad-infested sites: Use AdBlock Plus, a free Chrome extension, also available on other browsers, to block those annoying display ads which hog precious bandwidth).
Ray of hope
The picture is not all bleak, however. Flipkart’s latest user interface is a genius in the making. Once you “buy” an item, the site takes you to its “flowchart”. When you complete each step in the buying process correctly, you are rewarded with a green tick mark (The brilliant designers knew there’s something psychologically satisfying when you check something off as done). The tick marks stay through the process until you have successfully placed your order.
India is supposed to be a technology superpower, maintaining systems and sites of companies around the world. But most of its own companies’ websites are decidedly third world. Perhaps 2016 will bring about much-needed changes in service engine optimisation and user-friendly sites.
This is a New Year’s wish that I’m sure all of us share.
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