Orbitz Can’t Get A Date

by Jared Spool

In real estate, they say the three more attributes of a valuable property are, in order: 1) Location, 2) Location, and 3) Location.

Often, the same is true in user interface design.

We were recently reminded of this when we had a chance to watch a user make a reservation on last week. The user needed to schedule a trip leaving on March 23, returning on March 27.

When the user clicked on the date field labeled “Leave ” and up popped a floating calendar:


The user saw March was the lower panel and chose the 23rd. So far, so good.

Our user then moved her mouse over to the “Return” and up popped what seemed to be an identical calendar:


Being in a hurry, our user moved her mouse to the lower panel and chose her return date.

And that’s where the problem came about. Orbitz had been clever and moved March from the lower panel in the first calendar to the upper panel in the second. After all, you can’t return before you leave.

But the user relied on the location of the calendars, not expecting them to move. The result: a trip that was exactly one month longer than she wanted.

Years ago, we looked at how people remembered icons in desktop applications, such as Microsoft Word and Intuit’s Quicken. We tried two experiments:

In the first experiment, we changed the pictures of the icons, but kept them in the same location. We found, in general, users quickly adapted to the new imagery without much problem, particularly for commonly used functions.

In the second experiment, we kept the original pictures, but shuffled their locations on the toolbar. To our surprise, users really struggled with this. It really slowed them down, and, in several cases, they could not complete common tasks. (The icons were all visible, they just had trouble finding them in their new locations.)

From these results, we inferred the location of the icon is more important than the visual imagery. People remember where things are, not what they look like.

I wonder how many people have trouble on Orbitz like our user did. If this behavior is common, what design could Orbitz use to mitigate the problem?

Do you have location-dependent issues in your design? How did you find out and what did you do to solve it?

[Gratuitous Plug: Christine & I will be talking about techniques to discover these types of problems and how to ensure that future designs learn from them in our upcoming UIE Roadshow, the first of which is taking place in Atlanta this week. A few seats still available for all six cities. More information is here.]