I went to the Post Office to post a letter. But instead of the usual orderly queue and the friendly face of the postmaster behind the counter the place was empty. In front of me was a stack of shelves with newspapers and magazines of every description. Some looked interesting but I hadn't come here to read the news. Maybe after I posted my letter I would return to peruse them.
To my right was a large screen filled with flashing advertisements for various items, most of which I did not need or understand. To my left was a notice board filled with lists of contact numbers for services -some of which I recognised, others which were alien and unintelligible to me. Scattered around the floor were various pamphlets and flyers offering more services and special offers.
I was so disoriented that I almost forgot what I had come to the post office for and began to search for the exit, which had mysteriously vanished. After a little perseverance I found what I thought I was looking for. In among the list of services was a small note indicating where I should go if I wished to post my letter.
It sounds like a surreal dream but this is the reality I am faced with when I visit eircom.net (www.eircom.net) to send e-mail.
Back in the giddy days of the technology boom the internet portal was the big thing. Every consumer-oriented internet company was one or wanted to be one. The internet portal was the one-stop page that had it all: e-mail, web hosting, news of every flavour, weather, financial portfolio tracking, horoscopes, TV guides, advice columns, you name it, there it was. And all on the one page, whatever you needed was there. And all supported by the seemingly bottomless pockets of advertisers, drawn like moths to the flickering light of potentially millions of captive eyeballs.
But this wasn't television. The eyeballs weren't captive and eventually the advertisers woke up to this fact. They discovered that when someone goes on the web to write e-mail, to read the news or to find out if they really have a chance of a date with the dream guy at school, then that's exactly what they're going to do -and as quickly as possible. They're not going to hang around to read a flashy advertisement for computer software, credit cards or insurance along the way. So, slowly at first, and then with a speed that matched the stampeding herd that had first trampled the internet bandwagon, the advertisers abandoned the portals.
The more enlightened of the portal companies woke up as well. They discovered that the catchall internet portal wasn't as seductive to users as it seemed. Users didn't want to do all the things that the companies thought they did. Or at least they didn't want to do them all together.
And if they wanted news they would go straight to the source, the newspaper website. It was the same for the other services. They would go to the specialists rather than the jack-of-all trades portals.
So the best portals refocused and became specialists while most of the rest died away. But some struggled on in a perpetual state of identity crisis --not knowing what they should be or who they were serving-- relics of the mania that accompanied the early pioneering days of the commercial web.
Which brings me to eircom.net.
eircom.net is a portal and seems happy to remain so despite the fact that it makes poor business sense. The portal approach dilutes the service to its customers and its advertisers, and dilutes its own brand name too. Let's start with the customers' perspective.
From the customers' point of view eircom is an internet service provider. They use it to connect to the internet, to e-mail and maybe to host their website. If they are first time or novice users (as they often are -eircom is the first point of contact for most new users in Ireland) they may expect information to guide or help them on their initial forays into the internet.
What they do not expect is: news, unintelligible ads, lists of indecipherable channels, special offers and more ads. They're bamboozled enough as it is after connecting up their computer, negotiating Microsoft windows and dialling up. They just want to read their e-mail or get some information about how to get something useful out of the internet. They may even want to make the text into a size that they can actually read without going blind.
Well at eircom.net they're not going to get this. The information may be there but there is such a bewildering array of obstacles to be negotiated that it's almost impossible to find. The customers' first instinct is to blame themselves. 'This internet thing is not for me. I'm not a tech person. I'm not young enough. I just don't get it.' And for many that is the end of it.
But they're wrong. The internet is for them. They do get it. The internet is not the sole preserve of the tech-savvy or the young. There is something for everyone here. And if they cannot get to it then that is the fault of the service provider who, instead of making their task easier puts more obstacles in their way.
How much better it would be if the customers were given a simple interface to enter their e-mail username and password accompanied by a series of articles explaining the basics of the online world (a simple interface actually exists at http://webmail.eircom.net but you would never find it unless you were told).
I would rather if eircom.net showed me how and where to access the best news sites than give me the news itself. If I want news I'll go to RTE or the newspaper websites. The same goes for searching the internet. An article describing how to use search engines to get the results I want would be a lot more useful than just providing a link to Google. In short I want eircom.net to get on with the job of supporting my online activities rather than trying to be all of them. If I got that then I might even put up with the advertising.
Ah yes advertising. The fuel that was going to power the internet as it crushed all before it. Traditional business and old ideas about business would be swept away as the new economy took over. For the customer it was a dream world. Everything was free, paid for by those annoying little banners at the top of every website.
And of course it was a dream world. In fact it was a pyramid scheme almost as elaborate as the stock market that underpinned it. The advertisers were supported by other advertisers who were in turn supported by other advertisers and so on. All were waiting for the big day when their company would go public and they could retire on the profits. And in the clamour to outdo each other with outlandish claims and exaggerated predictions they overlooked one small point. The customer wasn't listening.
In fact they weren't looking either. They had learnt to instinctively ignore the annoying banner ads in their selfish and insatiable hunt for the information they wanted. Advertising on the internet was a dead duck.
But looking at eircom.net you wouldn't think so. Banner ads abound. And what's worse a new breed of ad has emerged: the pop up ad that jumps up in front of you while you're trying to complete the task that you originally came here for. How clever is that?
The simple rule about advertising on the Internet is that it only works if it is related to the task that the user is trying to accomplish. The text ads that accompany search results on Google [www.google.com] work well because they are related to the search criteria that the user typed in. This is a win-win situation for both the advertisers and the users. The users get ads that they are interested in and the advertisers get exposure to users who are interested in them. Similarly the subtle advertising of Amazon.com's [www.amazon.com] 'If you liked that then you may also like this' approach works because it advertises something that the user might actually be interested in.
Banner ads and pop-up ads don't work because they are not related to the users' tasks and in the worst cases hinder the users from completing their tasks.
I would prefer if there was no advertising on the page but if they're going to do it then they need to re-evaluate the model. They have to go the extra mile to bring the user to the advertiser. On the web users want one thing: information. Their desire to get information is insatiable. I would be more likely to click on a link selling me a book or a CD if I knew I was going to get an objective and informative review before I buy it. I'm not going to click on a colourful flashing ad if I don't know where it's taking me. I know from experience that it's going to drop me into the middle of a site at least as disorientating as the one I'm at.
The internet is all about information and communication. But eircom.net is stingy with its information and muddled in its communication. It provides hundreds of links that go nowhere and it tells you nothing about them. Did you know that access to eircom.net's support pages is restricted to users who connect via eircom lines? It's yet another shortsighted policy that causes inconvenience to genuine customers (and potential new ones) while restricting non-customers from reading information that is of no interest to them. It's the exact opposite of everything the information age promises. In case you've forgotten we are in the information age.
But I don't just want more information. I want information that is coherently presented. I want information that is in context. In short I want information I can use.
And I want to be able to read it. Why does the text have to be so small (and with no option to resize it) when a huge percentage of the screen to the left and right of the content is unused? It's the triumph of style over substance. Legibility be damned, small writing is 'cool' and 'hi-tech'. Just like the small 'e' in 'eircom'. What's that about?
E-mail revolutionised communication. It was the application that got everyone writing again. We didn't have to go to the trouble of buying envelopes, stamps, paper and pens and then --after numerous rewritings-- remember to go to the post office. We just wrote what we felt and pressed 'send'. If eircom.net and its type continue to put new obstacles in our way then we may soon return to the relative convenience of the post office.
About the author
The author is a self-appointed usability expert and all-round know-it-all who subscribes to the 'my way or the highway' school of web-design. He currently resides in a deserted advance factory, which he shares with the letter 'E'. Together they plot their revenge on the dot.com world that has so cruelly spurned them.