I’ve recently been looking for a new flat, and have been surprised by the wild differences, in terms of basic usability, of the various agency websites I’ve visited. The experience has served as a useful reminder of the need to keep usability at the forefront of the planning stage for any website.
With these kind of websites, you’d think that such functionality would be fairly standard across the board, with most sites taking a similar approach. But far from it. Here are some examples:
One site (www.aflatintown.com) asks you to specify the exact number of bedrooms. Now, whilst I only need one bedroom, a second one would be nice and is probably affordable. But to look for both I’m forced to do two separate searches (a far better option, which many other sites offer, is the ability to specify ‘exact’ or ‘minimum’ when choosing number of bedrooms).
Another site (www.drm-residential.co.uk) has a field for Location, but no hint as to what you should put there (Street name? Area? Postcode?). I tried typing ‘central’ but that came back with nothing. Even worse, the message said “All our properties are currently let” which simply wasn’t the case – other search terms revealed dozens of properties.
Yet another (www.flatcompany.com) makes you choose between ‘properties for students’ or ‘properties for professionals’ before you get the results (which you can then filter only by ascending or descending price and number of bedrooms). Now I may be a professional, but I might still want to look at the flats which they have identified as being for students (or vice versa). Again, two separate searches are necessary.
One of the best examples (www.s1homes.com, which aggregates results) gave multiple, optional criteria. Here you could specify your exact price range, property type, minimum bedrooms, location, keywords, availability and furnishings. You could even filter entries by when they were added, as well as specifying the garden, central heating and/or garage. Finally, and brilliantly, you could see the results on a map by way of a Google Maps mash-up.
Surprisingly, the methods of contact varied a lot too. I would have expected all sites to give address, telephone and email address as a minimum, with an optional contact form maybe thrown in for convenience. This was not always so, however, with some sites only offering the contact form.
Contact forms can be quick and easy for the users, and are a great way of ensuring you receive relevant information, but with something like the fast-paced world of flat hunting many people are going to want to contact you immediately, rather than wait around hoping that the form worked.
Also, some sites had two methods of contacting the agency – either as a tenant or as a property owner. As a prospective tenant, I assume that I’m supposed to use the former, but it’s not completely obvious and that may put some people off.
Finally, the type of details being offered by the various sites also varied wildly. Some gave lots of detail, including all the essentials such as rent and tax band, but also listing all the appliances and local amenities. Great! Others, however, take a more minimalist approach and even use a number of acronyms to increase the mystique (GCH, FF etc). If you don’t know what these stand for (‘gas central heating’, ‘fully furnished’ etc) you’re missing out on important content.
These are just a handful of examples of how a lack of thought (or possibly lack of technical expertise) can result in a real-world lack of usability. None of the issues highlighted here are complete barriers to using the sites, but they will hinder the user, slowing down their efforts to access the content, and ultimately impact upon on the image of the website, and the company, as a whole.
The hunt for a new flat goes on…