What not to develop
16 May, 2009 4 Comments
I was recently looking to book a hotel in Southwark in London. I thought I’d found the perfect hotel, it was inexpensive (by London standards) and close to where I would be visiting. They also had availability on an offer for £75 per night, so long as you checked in and out on specific days, which I happened to be doing. It looked perfect.
But then things started to go wrong.
I selected the rate from the availability page and clicked the “Book” button. The next page popped up (it opened a new window) and the details were pre-populated. However, it had changed the number of nights from 2 to 3. I didn’t want 3 nights, so I changed it back to 2 and I got a rather terse message saying “Minimum Stay: 3”. I’m happy to accept that style of message from a compiler, but not from a public facing website.
I went back and repeated the process wondering if I’d somehow clicked on the wrong rate. I double checked everything this time. Date is correct (but in an American format on a .co.uk website), number of people (1), number of nights (2), number of rooms (1), the room description explicitly gives the rules for the stay conditions for the rate. I meet all the conditions that are presented to me. I press “Book” again…
And it has pre-populated everything again and added an extra night on. I don’t want an extra night! Why even present me with a rate that I can’t have because it doesn’t meet my needs.
By this point I’m more than a wee bit frustrated. So I take off to the website’s contact us page. Instead of providing an email address there is a form to fill in. So, I write a description of the issues I was seeing on their site at which point the site fails again. It failed spectacularly badly. If it had taken me to an error page I would have just shrugged my shoulders and gone off elsewhere. But no, it decided to throw up its internals at me. It vomited details of the SQL Statement that failed, stack traces and so on.
It even had the audacity to tell me that “The following information is meant for the website developer for debugging purposes.” It might have well have said “The following information is meant for an attacker so they can destroy our server.”
So, back to my title, what not to develop. There were many failings on this website that I could see. The user experience was poor to start with and it then descended in to abject failure when it vomited its guts up at me.
1. Don’t use pop-up windows; browsers may block them; they cause confusion for some users. Absolutely do not have a pop-up out of a pop-up; it clutters my screen with needless windows.
2. Don’t have a disconnect between the display locale on the site and the TLD. If you have a geographic TLD then display information in a way that consistent with the culture of that location. e.g. Do not display dates in Month/Day/Year format when you are serving pages on a .co.uk domain. If you have customers from overseas and want to localise content for them then offer that ability, but default to your own locale if you don’t know their preference. Some websites try to be clever and will detect based on the IP of the user but even this isn’t 100% accurate. I’m located in Glasgow, but if you use a IP geo location service it shows me in Greater Manchester.
3. If a user has told you their needs do not present rates that do not meet those needs. If you do want to show near alternatives then make it clear that the details entered do not match the rate displayed, but some minor changes will get the user the rate. Put this information at the bottom or in a different colour. Anything that makes it easily distinguishable.
4. Don’t allow a business rule to mismatch the user friendly description. Make sure that the description of the rate actually matches the business rules that will be used to enforce the rate. If you have a rate that is described to the user as from X to Y don’t have the underlying business rules enforce a stay from X to Z. That will just irritate people.
5. Don’t give users terse error messages; it is unpleasant and unfriendly. If a user has made a mistake then gently point it out.
6. Don’t just send data to the database without validating it first. If a user has typed something that is too long for the column in the database for which it is destined then the software controlling the website should never have attempted to send it to the database in the first place.
7. Don’t display information that could be useful to an attacker. Don’t display stack traces, SQL Statements, system generated error messages, code snippets, etc.