Downtown View: The Woeful Web

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The troubles Obamacare has had with its web site have reminded me of how intractable the web is. On the one hand, we can’t get along without it. On the other hand, visits to web sites are one of the most frustrating activities we have to endure. Some of us think we should be rebuilding our nation’s hard infrastructure—roads, bridges, airports, rails. We also need to address the electronic web’s infrastructure. Surely there is a better way to run it.

Perhaps you have recently been dependent on the web and found it troublesome. I’ve been ordering presents—mostly Legos—and making arrangements for a trip.

The Lego site was fine. Everything else was a mess.

The first problem is that you are responsible for doing everything. If things go wrong, you are supposed to know how to fix them or to fiddle around for hours trying to figure out how to solve the problem. A phone number for help is typically buried many layers deep.

I eventually had to phone Shutterfly since its wording was confusing and I had ordered two of everything. It was a good thing I talked to a human because the nice man on the other end pointed out that coupons on the site reduced the cost of items considerably. I never did find them on the web site.

When I went back to change a zip code on one retail store’s website, I had to start all over again with my order, address and credit card information.

Amazon.com works well, remembering every order I’ve ever placed, but its Audible division, which I tried out so I could listen to books, downloaded a book incompletely, but charged me twice. I spent several minutes finding a telephone number. The woman I eventually spoke to helped me download properly—except when I looked at my phone a couple of days later to listen to the book, it still had not downloaded the whole thing. I gave up and canceled the subscription—at least I hope I did, since I did it online and have received no confirmation.

The Boston Globe’s website said I had timed out when I tried to stop delivery while we would be gone, even though it had taken me only seconds to plug in the dates. I called a person, who was only a voice issuing instructions to punch in numbers. I’ll find out if that worked when I get home.

I tried to reserve a car on Expedia, but I couldn’t get a confirmation because my laptop shows an outdated email address in my Expedia account. (My main computer shows the correct email address. Go figure.) The Expedia web site wouldn’t allow me to change the email address. A message kept popping up: “Due to communication or some other problems, we are temporarily unable to sign you up. We should be able to serve you again soon.” I finally found Expedia’s telephone number. The nice man in Asia told me he couldn’t figure out how to change the email either, but that I had actually reserved the car.

I use Quickbooks Online, which has helpful people who answer the phone promptly. But that company changes its interface frequently, supposedly upgrading, usually to features you don’t need. Every new interface means you have to figure out the new locations of all the buttons you used to be familiar with. More time taken up learning something you don’t want to learn.

Finally, at the airport, JetBlue didn’t have my reservation when I tried to check in. Luckily, a uniformed lady passed by, noticed I was having troubles, tapped into her computer behind a counter, and I was saved.

And these problems don’t include all the passwords and sign-in names we have to remember.

I’m provoked that Obama’s administration blew the first encounter with our new national health. I haven’t had to deal with that personally though. If I can’t work Shutterfly, I’m afraid I would have failed with healthcare too no matter how well the site was working.

I urge our vaunted technology companies to design better web sites, to standardize them, make them cleaner and clearer, less cluttered, make them work. I’m no techie, but I’m smart enough. If so many web sites frustrate me, lots of others have trouble with them too.

Meanwhile, I’ll check Shutterfly’s offerings online and then I’ll use the telephone. I’ll see how they like that.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com

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