Monday, November 22, 2010

I've Got a Blank Spot

Some time ago I bought a black 16"x16" picture frame for a poster that I thought was 16"x16" but actually turned out to be 17"x17". However, I decided to keep the frame because I liked it and because I didn't think it would be that hard to find a poster to fit it somewhere down the line.

Truth be told, it had just sat in my closet for a long time and I'd completely forgotten about it. Now that I've just moved to a new place - and one with less closet space - this empty frame has become more apparent. It just sits on the floor, leaning against the wall, all day, every day, blank, empty, alone, staring at me, wondering why I don't love it.

Today I finally decided to do something about it. Any project manager/usability professional worth their salt can write a pretty good use case/scenario around this particular need, because my needs and goals are extremely well-defined here. Hell, my information need/goal is so well-defined, I doubt if anyone reading this, irrespective of profession, would be surprised at the information seeking behavior that results from my problem: I need to browse 16"x16" posters so I can choose one I wouldn't mind framing and putting on my wall.

In other words, whether by searching or browsing, I need to first restrict the subset of posters on a site to the ones that are exactly 16"x16" and then use my usual human fuzzy logic to browse through and pick one I like. Simple, right? So simple, in fact, that it's not actually possible to do on any of the major online poster stores.

Go ahead and try. A Google search for "posters" will yield the following stores on the first page of results:

None of them support the kind of information seeking behavior I'm talking about. I grant you that trying to find posters to fit a specific frame can be dismissed as an edge case, an idiosyncrasy that perhaps wouldn't be in the "80% case." But is it so crazy to think that people would want to be able to browse by size? Or at least sort search results by size? Is it really so rare for people to look at a blank spot on their wall and think "I'd like a poster that'll fit right there" and then go out in search for one that'll fit the space? Common sense tells me it isn't (but hey, I've been wrong before).

Two of the sites seem to offer this ability but then soon reveal themselves to be false prophets. Here's the homepage for IcePoster:
Hey, baby, you're just what I've been looking for...
Ignoring for the moment that this site seems to deal exclusively in celebrity posters, thus limiting my choices more than I'd like, at first glance that top banner seems to suggest that you can get most posters on the site in a variety of sizes. That seems like a pretty good start. So I click on a couple of the names featured on the front page, and the sorting options for all of them are the same:
... damn beer goggles.
As it turns out, this site isn't going to help me out, either, as it doesn't quite seem to offer all the options its homepage originally promised. I will give it some props for giving customers a choice on poster sizes for pretty much everything they sell, however. That choice at least attempts to solve the "choosing by size" problem by making size not matter - "you can choose any poster you want, and chances are we can give you a size that'll fit the space you're thinking of."

BareWalls comes so close to allowing the kind of information seeking behavior that I'm talking about that its failure to deliver makes it so much more frustrating. I noticed that BareWalls is the only service to have a little "Advance Search" option on their search engine. I clicked it and almost shouted in glee when I saw the resulting page:
Look at that! I can narrow both width and height to exactly what I need! And I can even specify a price range, something I honestly hadn't quite thought of until I saw it but turns out to also be kind of an important consideration. So I fill in the fields:
Narrowing my seaaaarch, la di daaaa
And I hit "Search":
There are two reasons why that result is really, really bad UX:
  1. The user (me, in this case) had no idea this was required. If a field needs to be filled in before a search can work, they need to tell users in advance. I'm actually really surprised I even have to mention this since this is like, web forms 101. 
  2. It just doesn't make any sense. Why do they need a keyword? In the context of my information need, a keyword isn't important to me, so why is it important to them? Seriously, it's easy enough to get a database to return all the relevant rows based on my search sans a keyword that I can't think of any reason why they'd flat-out require this for every advanced search.
Oh, well. I guess finding this poster will take more work than I thought.

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