Once upon a time I used to focus my efforts on helping my clients create great user experiences.  I even wrote a Masters level thesis on User Interfaces and the user experience.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that my real passion was in marketing – but those days of architecting usable interfaces comes in handy all the time now.  As I review sites, as I help clients promote their online properties, the quality of the user interface still plays a big role.  Yet one of the truths that I learned early on was that there are many moments where what a business wants an interface to do is in direct contrast to what a user may want.  The most obvious example is an airline ticket site, where a user goal is often to find the cheapest flight from point A to point B.  The business goal, of course, is to sell the ticket at the highest price.  This is the nature of business vs. user conflicts.

As Internet users, we may complain about a particular user interface, but what many of us don’t realize is that some of these less usable interface choices may be done intentionally.  For those wondering how such a situation could be possible, here are just a few ways that some user interfaces suck on purpose and why:

  1. Preventing core functionality if it loses money – There are always going to be activities online that lose you money.  For insurance companies, unfortunately those activities coincide with what customers are often asking for … payouts in relation to medical expenses.  Aetna (a major US health insurance provider) has one of the most robust online client centers around.  You can check account balances, see all the payments they have made on your behalf, choose doctors and read health content.  Yet the one thing you can’t do is submit a claim online – that requires you to print a form with tiny lettering, fill it out and physically mail it to a PO Box.  Manufacturer’s rebates are the same way.  In both cases, these functions could be offered online – but it just doesn’t pay to make it too easy.   
  2. Locking users into a checkout process – No one likes getting on a road with no exits – particularly if you have taken a wrong turn.  Yet Amazon.com and many others insist on locking you into the checkout process once you start it with no links to leave and return, even if you are leaving to add more products to your shopping cart.  Letting users bail out doesn’t have to negatively impact conversion – particularly if you let them leave to buy more.  But Amazon must have some data to suggest that the lock-in approach works better.
  3. Getting all users details up front – This is one of the most commonly experienced issues online, a new user being confronted with an overly intimate registration form forcing them to fill in details about their mailing address, security questions, secret words, irrelevant survey questions and more just to become a member of a site.  People who are ready to join should feel the most welcome of any user to your site.  They want to be a part of your community – it’s your job to let them do it easily.  The better solution would be to ask for all the complicated stuff later, and make the registration form as easy as possible.
  4. Offering barriers to getting full content – NY Times and other media properties have latched onto this model as a way to give users who have not signed in access to only part of the content and require a login (sometimes free, and often paid) to access the rest of the content.  The result is a disruptive experience for users.  Letting them read content and perhaps introducing a login to comment or read comments on stories may be a different model to consider – and one less likely to lose users.
  5. Funneling all visitors through the homepage – A disturbing myth that is still prevalent today, this argument is about the necessity of funneling all visitors to a site through the homepage so they get to see the branding and have a "proper" introduction to a site.  In most cases, if a visitors ends up at your site via search, this just puts another roadblock between her and the content she is seeking.  Let your users go to any page they need and just brand all your pages properly with links back to the homepage. 

Of course, not all bad user experiences stem from a business reason.  Some are simply due to the inexperience of those who don’t have the skill to make it better, or funded by those who don’t have the money to improve it.  But as qualities of a good user interface become more widely accepted, perhaps this group of unintentionally bad user interfaces will start to disappear.  Just imagine how much more difficult it would be to get away with a poor user experience online if your customers knew you intentionally chose to leave it that way …