I recently attended the Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week in London and although I took quite a bit from my time there, one episode left a bitter taste in my mouth. My core focus when I arrived at the Usability Week was on the one day event called “The Human Mind & Usability: How Your Customers Think”. This was something that I felt could be really beneficial to me and a number of clients and therefore was very much looking forward to it.

The day course was presented by Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with Neilsen Norman Group. As the day started, I really felt it was a good decision to choose this presentation as Marieke came out with some really interesting facts and case studies on user tests she had run in the past. All was going really well. Of course a lot of what she had to say were things that I would have come across a before – but it was the little gems that I hadn’t that I really wanted to get from this.

Throughout the presentation, Marieke referred to a certain website quite a lot and in the afternoon session this website was going to be our focus of attention for discussing all we had learned throughout the day.

“Brilliant”, I thought. Finally we’ll get to see Marieke in action. We’d get to see what she would do when presented with a real world situation. I was looking forward to seeing how she would tackle issues that us web designers tackle on a daily basis with clients that come to you with a problem and want you to solve it.

So what was this website? Well the website in question was Ramenbox.com.

Ramenbox.com is a website that basically sells Ramen – Ramenbox.com’s unique selling point is that you can bulk order a custom selection of Ramen and have it delivered to your door. They are the world’s first sellers of customisable box of Ramen (according to their website).

Ok, so I hadn’t got a clue what Ramen was before I went to this event and I certainly couldn’t tell you if people would be interested in buying a full box of Ramen, but that shouldn’t be an issue. We’re here to discuss how we can build a website to help this company maximise its chances of success right? Well so you would think.

If you have a look at Ramenbox.com – you’ll see the process is quite complex, never mind the fact that the website designer clearly didn’t spend much time user testing the website before launching it. The website’s from page starts off well, with 1-4 step instructions on how it works. The problem is, they don’t really give you clear instructions on how to get started. The wording, the layout and the complexity of the choices to even get one item into your shopping cart is enough to turn you off filling in a complete box of Ramen. I would imagine that Ramenbox lose quite a lot people in the first one or two clicks.┬áIf you do have the time to play around with that website and figure out what you have to do – I think most people eventually get it – but it will still feel too cumbersome to continue with their order.

Anyway, this website to me was an absolutely brilliant case study – it has everything you could wish for. A totally complex business model, a website that had not taken the cumbersome process of ordering into account and we have a usability expert to tell us how we could solve it! Or so I thought…

After lunch Marieke split us all into groups so we could discuss among ourselves what we would do with the website and how it related to what we had discussed throughout the day. Brilliant I thought again – this is the type of stuff I love! Solving problems with a user centred and practical approach to design. I was part of a lovely group – we all agreed on a process and what we’d change to make this website work as best it can. I personally felt we had a solution.

So next step was opening it up to the floor to talk about what our groups had discussed. Straight away the guy that had been loudest all day (you know the ones, they’re always at these conferences) – we’d change the business model – it just doesn’t work. In fairness to him, he had a point. The whole process was just so difficult and complex that there were better ways of approaching the business model. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss right – we’re here to discuss how we can make a complex business model work online aren’t we?

To my dismay, Marieke agreed with him, but she opened it up to the floor for more ideas – I thought, “now’s our chance to show how we’d do it”. Again, another loud attendee is ushered to voice his opinion on what he’d do. Again, he comes back with another way to change the business model. Again, Marieke agreed. This then started the floodgates of how everyone in the room would change the business model. Even those in our group seemed to move with the idea that changing the business model was the best way to solve this problem. A classic example of the “Solomon Asch Conformity Study” that we’d spent sometime discussing earlier in the day.

I hoped against hope that Marieke would come back with how she would tackle the problem by changing things on the website – but no – she finished the session with how she would get the client to change their business model. I nearly cried. Why could she not see a solution to this problem – even one – other than redesigning the business model?

Can you imagine if we turned around to every company we deal with that has a complex way of doing business to change their business model? It just wouldn’t happen. We do of course suggest to clients how they can simplify their model to make it work online, but in some cases it’s just not possible – OR – the client is hell bent on doing it in that particular way.

If a company employs us to help them succeed online – we take their idea and present it as best we can to get a maximum return on their investment in time and money. We give them the very best advice and spend time figuring out how they can actually achieve their goal, but with realistic targets and constant suggestions on where they can improve.

Maybe I’m just being pedantic – but it really left a sour taste in mouth. Telling Ramenbox to change their business model is not a usability solution to this problem, it’s a cop out in my opinion.

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