Orbitz Can’t Get A Date

Jared Spool

February 20th, 2006

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 Orbitz.com 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.]

6 Responses to “Orbitz Can’t Get A Date”

  1. Woodster.com » Blog Archive » Location, Location, Location Says:

    […] More at UIE Brain Sparks… […]

  2. Zusch Login » Blog Archive » Of Magic and Machines Says:

    […] Toolbar icons are so notoriously hard to interpret and remember that one study found that users identify toolbar items more by memorizing the location than by their iconic labels (see also Engel, F.L., Andriessen, J.J. & Schmitz, H.J.R. (1983) What, Where and Whence: Means […]

  3. Zusch Login » Blog Archive » Menu Bank Shot Says:

    […] each menu item remains in the same position in the window as in Full display. Users actually rely on the positions of menu items to help identify them. By keeping the “expert” menu items for a menu bank […]

  4. 10 מיתוסים על UX וממשק משתמש | Wizard UI Says:

    […] והם לא יעילים. אייקונים לא משפרים את ביצועי המשתמשים. מחקר הוכיח כי המשתמשים זוכרים את מיקום האייקונים ולא את […]

  5. Myth #13: 아이콘은 사용성을 증가시킨다? | Clearboth Says:

    […] 사용성이 즉시 증가하였고, 사람들은 툴바를 사용하기 시작했다. 다른 연구에서, UIE 팀은 사람들이 기능을 그래픽으로 표현한 것(아이콘)이 아니라, 그 […]

  6. [Myth] Icons enhance usability | willpower.blog Says:

    […] to the icons. It immediately fixed the usability issues and people started to use the toolbar. Inanother study, the team of UIE observed that people remember a button’s position instead of the graphic […]

Add a Comment