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Website Design Case Study: IBM Passport Advantage Website
David (The Notes Guy In Seattle)    

Every year at Lotusphere in the Ask the Developers session someone will ask IBM “When are you going to make the Passport Advantage website user-friendly?!”  And every year the response from IBM is “What are you talking about?  It’s fine!”  Apparently usability studies are unnecessary.  After all, this is IBM.  How could the world’s second or third largest software company NOT know how to build a website?  Who are we to give them advice, right?  We’re just customers, not experts on web development, right?  We are mere ersatz of IBM’s erudite web developers.

Well recently I have been refreshing my web development skills in a degree program at Bellevue College and I would like to think I have become more than just a dilettante of web design.  As part of my studies, I am using the Passport Advantage website as a case study in best (and worst) practices in web design.  I would like to bring you along for the lesson.  Please join me in this discussion of what does and doesn’t work in web design, particularly as it relates to the success of the IBM Passport Advantage website in achieving its goal.  Hopefully by this vetting, all of us can learn something from this world class international website representing the third most valuable brand in the world.

My classmates don’t have access to log into this website.  So I will include some screen shots.  Hopefully this does not infringe on any copyrights.  This is intended for review by my classmates in the web design class and web authoring program for educational purposes only.

First, let’s find the URL.  If I were to guess at it so I could go directly to it, I would expect something like http://www.ibm.com/passportadvantage .  But that doesn’t work.  So let’s go to the IBM home page, http://www.ibm.com and look for a link.  You can find it on IBM’s home page, though with some effort.  You won’t find it in any of the menus at the top of the page, but if you scroll down, you can find it “below the fold” under the Popular Links list.  For that reason, I expect most people just use a search engine to find the site.  I searched for “Passport Advantage” on Google.com and it came up as the first link.  It was the second link listed on both yahoo.com and bing.com. It was also the first link in the results list when searched directly on the IBM website.  Here is the landing page for all of these.  The URL is http://www-01.ibm.com/software/howtobuy/passportadvantage/
IBM Passport Advantage initial page

(click image to enlarge)

Not exactly an intuitive URL.  Note in the screen shot that it already knows who I am.  Am I logged in?  Well, no.  I need to click on the Customer sign in link in the box on the right labeled “Fast Access”.
Note that it instructs to use my email address for the user name.  Not exactly.  Some accounts (like mine) require the username that was created, NOT the email address.

IBM Passport Advantage Login screen

(click image to enlarge)

By the way, if I click on the link that says “Not you?”  beside my name in the top right, I get this error page with no way back but to close the browser and start over:

IBM Passport Advantage error message switching users

(click image to enlarge)

After logging in, you get to what I will call the “homepage” of Passport Advantage.  Actually there is no home page for Passport Advantage and there is never an obvious path back to this page.  I could find no links that lead back to this page except by logging in.  The Home link on this page goes to the home page of ibm.com and once you go there, good luck trying to get back to Passport Advantage.  Assuming you know about the link at the bottom of the page, you’ll get back fairly easily.  But most people just google it again.  (even if you call customer support, they will direct you to find it this way!)

IBM Passport Advantage homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Great now you’re on the “homepage”.  There are primarily 2 reasons most Lotus professionals visit this site: 1.  To open a PMR with technical support or 2. To download software.  Let’s start with getting technical support.  Look closely.  There are no less than 7 links to get some kind of help, not counting the phone number listed in the bottom right corner, which by the way, is NOT the number to call to reach technical support.  Each of these 7 links go to different pages.  The one to open a ticket with technical support (called a PMR) happens to be the last on in the left pane, labeled “Online technical support”.  This would seem obvious but for the 6 other links to support on the page.  By the way, if you visit a page and then hit the Back button, you will occasionally get an error instead and it will prompt you to log in again.

IBM Passport Advantage Support links on homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Once you get to the place to enter a PMR with technical support, you may want to get back to the “homepage”.  Which link on this page do you think you should select?

IBM Passport Advantage missing link to homepage

(click image to enlarge)

If you chose Home you would be wrong and once there you would not be able to use the back button to return here.
If you chose Return to the IBM Support Portal you would also be wrong. (See the next screen shot.)
The correct link is actually under related links.  Go figure.

No link back to homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Now let’s look at the second common reason to visit this site: downloading software.  For this function you “only” have 5 choices.  Again, they all go to different places.  Choose carefully.  You may navigate through several lengthy steps before realizing you’re in the wrong place to find what you’re looking for.

IBM Passport Advantage links to download software

(click image to enlarge)

The downloads process continues through several confusing steps including prompting TWICE that you accept the software agreement, before actually getting to download the software.  And you had better know exactly what you are looking for.  There are no useful descriptions of the purpose of each software and many have very similar names.

In our classroom discussion the class agreed when it comes to usability, this site fails miserably,  It is laden with many confusing links that are not organized in any obvious, meaningful grouping.  There are way too many links without any form of structure or organization to the navigation. One of the class exercises is to create a site map identifying the navigation, but this website proved too complex to create a site map at all.  The arrangement of the navigation did not help to identify the relevance of the links either.  And why does it have 2 places to select a language? (one at the extreme top of the page, the other in the right column beside the banner image)

Well, there you have it.  So far we have examined the pages leading up to the main page of the Passport Advantage site and the main page itself.  What do you think?  Is this analysis off the mark?  If you regularly navigate this site, what has your experience been with it?

Up next if I have the time and patience:  Stepping through the website  to download software – no trivial task.

Before you pass final judgement on this website, check out what truly BAD websites look like at WebPagesThatSuck

Footnote: After writing this article, I noticed there is now a tutorial for Passport advantage on the landing page (you do not need to log in to view it.)

After a few minutes of frustration I had to quit viewing it.  The wizard was     tiny.   The navigators to advance the slides are so small I had trouble getting my mouse in just the right spot to click it.  There are pages and pages of blah, blah, blah.  It isn’t a tutorial about USING the website.  It’s about 45 minutes of reading all about WHY you should BUY it.

Aug 10, 2011
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