Usability of italia.it: brief excursus by a disappointed designer

A nice, circumstantial analysis of the usability of the http://www.italia.it portal, sent to “ScandaloItaliano” by the excellent Daniele Tonon.

Preambles are useless, let’s get to the facts.

Just like many other IT professionals, as soon as the single most important institutional web project ever launched by Italy – www.italia.it – came online, I rushed to discover its pages.

A bad start…

The first impact is truly terrible. I am welcomed by an absolutely static flash animation the size of a post stamp, in which a strange green shape stands out (at the time of my first visit, I wasn’t yet aware of the new logo for Italy, another topic of furious debate); an Italic song, at full volume, makes its haughty appearance. I will spend a few words about this page (update: now removed) since it perfectly sums up the competence and the qualitative perspective with which this site/portal was created.

The base problems are essentially three:

  1. Flash intros are the quintessence of non-usability. Top-notch professionals have been denouncing this for years and finally the web is progressively getting rid of what was merely a post-television legacy. In 2007, italia.it proudly presents itself to the public wearing an old, torn dress.
  2. This Flash animation, that by the way isn’t animated at all, was inserted into the page using some badly written code, which causes it to appear the size of a post stamp – as mentioned above – when viewed with Firefox. This may seem trivial, but demonstrates that the technical staff and the quality evaluation team didn’t implement any procedures whatsoever to verify the accessibility and usability, starting from the most obvious one: checking the navigation with the most commonly used browsers. Nobody ever viewed the site using a browser other than IE before authorizing publication; and we are not talking about a secondary section, but about the very first page!
  3. Whoever created the page, perhaps already suspicious about its utility, wisely added the good old “skip” button… inside the Flash! The collateral effects are obvious:
    • Without the plug-in (let’s remember that it’s still proprietary) the site cannot be accessed since the browser won’t display anything at all.
    • Search engines cannot index the contents of the pages since they cannot overcome this obstacle.

The project’s accessibility has been blatantly ignored, in violation of recent legislation (“leggeStanca“). This is also true for internal pages, which can be reached after a second Flash animation (comments are superfluous at this point): the use of doctype HTML 4.01, the anachronistic table layout, and many other errors that web designers all over Italy have already pointed out. To be honest, usability hasn’t been completely ignored but rather reinterpreted in a bizarre way: it is possible to download an alternative browser, bearing the veryitalianized name of “Easy web browsing”, that can “best support the navigators in accessing the contents offered by italia.it […]” (cit. from Italia.it).

Usabilityanalysis

Since the cold and rational analysis of a professional could seem excessively and unnecessarily critical, I intend to conduct a simple “hands-on” usability test using one of the most consolidated techniques, that is, questioning 4 different subjects:

  • Italian, 25 years old, good experience in using the internet
  • Italian, 45 years old, fairly good experience in using the internet
  • English speaking foreigner, 35 years old, fairly good experience in using the internet
  • Italian, 30 years old, blind, very good experience in using the internet

I asked them to perform some specific tasks that required using the site; I also asked them to voice their comments while browsing. Then, I independently monitored their interaction with the pages (mouse movement, use of the search function, etc.).

Below I will report the most interesting results.

Homepage

The complaint about the Flash animation on the first content page is unanimous (again!), as essentially useless: size too large, not clickable (except for the small logo “100% Italian life style”), completely unrelated, at least textually, to the locations portrayed. The same Flash is repeated (only slightly smaller in size) on all the internal sections without any semantic relation to their content, de facto obscuring the pretences of information that initially led the user to access the page. The section dedicated to Milan shows, as first thing, a field of red flowers with an alpine background.

The “Partiamo!” bar located on the right is in competition with the horizontal menu at the top, leaving the user in doubt of which navigation path to follow. Furthermore, the non-standard positioning on the right side initially causes the contents to be ignored, as considered “secondary”.

The 45-year-old user, who wears glasses, finds the main menu not clearly readable, as it is presented in negative colors, as well as the side bar where the links are presented tone on tone, with inadequate contrast and font size. He erroneously, but understandably, thinks that the spotlight news found on the homepage do not lead to further details: title, picture and text are in fact not clickable; there is only one link (“continua”) at the end of the text, in a very small font and not properly underlined.

The blind user is rather upset by the accessibility of the pages; being used to surfing web sites with a clear organization of the contents, purged from the structural burden of tables, he has to take a step back and resume old habits, jumping from cell to cell in search of contents that might interest him. He sarcastically comments the title of the interactive map that reads “This link opens a new window with an inaccessible content”.

Search function and information structure

All of the Italian users find discomforting the impossibility to have a clear overview of the chosen location and the means to get there. The more experienced users aim directly to the search field (luckily, in a standard position) and type in the name of the city (complaint: the “Search” sample string found in the text box is not cleared by default when clicking in the box, but must be deleted manually): the result page presents some “smart links” (note: the term is not clear to all users, in one case it is mistaken for advertisement, perhaps due to the background color) leading to pages which are basically flat: they lack organization of the information (paragraphs, highlights) and there are no external links at all, if not at the bottom of the page, in a very “bibliographic” style. These texts have been clearly edited by someone without the least experience in writing for the web.

The less experienced users begin the navigation from the menu “Scopril’italia!” and all get stuck at the Flash map, which tries to open a new window, blocked by the “anti pop-up” systems installed on the computer. After wasting a considerable amount of time in unsuccessful attempts, they are able to locate the menu on the left and, after a long series of menu items “Regions” – “Provinces” – “Municipalities” they reach a search engine that lets them specify the name of the location. It is worth noting that this menu varies its structure every time it is clicked, making the user lose all hierarchical and navigational references.

The english speaking user also tries to perform a search first, and types in the term “Milana” (note the final “a”): “No matches found!” The user looks a little disoriented, until he realizes the misspelling, and complains about the fact that a corrections/suggestions system hasn’t been implemented for foreign users, as such functionality exists for several popular search engines. When searching for the correct term, “Milano”, the result page displays the usual field of flowers with alpine background and the user automatically thinks that he has made a mistake, so he presses the “back” button. For the third time, he checks the spelling, starts the search and finally notices the search results at the bottom of the page:

1. Duomo Milano, Regione Lombardia

2. Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio Lombardia, Milano

At this point, the page needs scrolling, and the following results are displayed:

3. Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Milano, Lombardia

4. Hotel Accomodation in Milan Lombardia

And then:

5. Roana – Welcome Roana, Vicenza Province, Regione Veneto, Italy

Veneto? At this point, the user is quite puzzled. He clicks on the link “Hotel Accomodation in Milan”, even though he is interested in finding information about getting to Milan: the page only contains a series of links to hotels, without any cross-references to other resources. The small link “Milan” at the top left corner of the page is not noticed, being located above the title.

He then tries to browse the menus. After checking the “What to do” page, immediately discarded as useless for what he has in mind, he skips to “Visit Italy”. The Flash map offers a select box with descriptive texts in Italian which is immediately discarded, also because the user doesn’t know for sure where the city is located. He then locates the menu on the left, which unfortunately will not take him anywhere since it relies on the concept of “Region”: Italy is renowned mainly because of its cities, so forcing the foreign user to a bureaucratic and taxonomic structure is equivalent to hiding the contents, and only leaves a sense of discomfort and loss.

During navigation, the blind user encounters as first thing the “Where to sleep” search, as the link “Go to the navigation menu”, especially created to improve the site’s accessibility, causes the general search field to be skipped. Searching for “Milano”, he finds:

CAPTION: Result

Result 1 ZEFIRO

Hotels

Sauna not present Solarium not present Restaurant not present

Swimming Pool not present Conference Rooms Parking Gym not present

Indoor Swimming Pool not present Pets welcome Vegetarian Cuisine not present Not accessible to disabled persons

Location: Milano, Province of Milano

It’s easy to note the positive, coherent boost that the search manages to transmit, together with the absolutely relevant results.

Update: the “Where to sleep” search exhibits a bizarre behavior:

· When running the same search several times, the results differ, the order in which hotels are presented changes.

· It is not possible to copy the URL of the search results and send it to a friend, since the resulting page displays an error message: “The results are not valid. Check your browser and try again!”

The user, after closely analyzing the page, is able to locate the general search field and tries a more specific query: “disabled milano”. Initially no results are found, since he forgot to delete the default text from the search box, “Search” (see complaint by the more savvy users); when performing the correct search, as first result he gets:

1. Salento's baroque - Itineraries Salento's Baroque, Region Puglia, Italia Link: http://www.italia.it/it/guide/5,it,SCH1/objectId,TOU57007Pit,season,at1/home.html

Not only is this page absolutely not related to the search, it also only has one link in the main body: “Build your itinerary”; the title of the page is “This link opens a new window with unaccessible content”.

The usability analysis ends here, earlier than expected, since the data collected so far is of such relevance that it would be useless and redundant to continue analyzing other minor aspects.

Conclusions

None of the users that participated in the test was able to successfully complete the task assigned.

The conclusions, mine but most of all of the users, are very serious: the usage of old technologies, the lack of care for the web standards related to accessibility and the poor attention to the real needs of potential users depict a service without service, rough and frustrating, absolutely far from the utility promised or hoped for.

A preventive research on usability, even if simple and abrupt like the one conducted for this report (less than 4 hours including tests and drafting), could have easily solved the most consistent problems and given many hints on the actions to be taken to those in charge of the project (hints that have emerged even from “my” users, here omitted for synthesis needs).

Last, overlooking the unbelievable funds that were apparently destined to this project, it is extremely sad and painful to remark how the much celebrated “Made in Italy” is presented to the whole world.

Daniele Tonon

Last revision: 26 Febbraio 2007

This text has been released under the Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5.

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