Note: this usability review as done as part of my graduate coursework at Kent State University.
My Lycos is a substantial player in the portal/personal site market. The site is owned by Terra Lycos, which is currently seventh on the list of parent sites with the most visits (Nielsen//NetRatings, 1). The site offers a wide range of services, tools, and options, and allows users to log into accounts with other Terra Lycos sites like Tripod and Quote.com (My Lycos, 1). A previous paper (Newton, 1) examined the site and analyzed some user tasks. This paper will also re-analyze the tasks in the original paper, and take a second look at the site, through four usability guidelines from the textbook (Dumas, 56) and five from a popular usability site (Nielsen, 1).
1. Giving the user control
The original paper and a cursory examination of My Lycos show plenty of opportunity for users to take control. Users have 35 possible content boxes to choose from in eight categories. Some boxes can be further customizedâ€”the News box, for example, gives users the ability to pick up to 13 different types of news, rank them, and pick out local news sources. The main user control problem is the lack of a central place to change all settings or an easy walk through of the options available. It is likely many users miss that they can customize news, because the only indication is a small edit tag in the news box itself.
2. Striving for consistency
My Lycos stays fairly consistent, but does run in to some problems when users go to other sites in the Terra Lycos family. The original paper skipped in and out of My Lycos, Tripod, FOXSports, and Lycos Zone, among others. Some areas, like Quote.com, are integrated into the My Lycos color/navigation scheme, while others are not.
3. Smoothing human-computer interactions with feedback
There are some problems in this area. When signing up for a new account, required fields are not marked in any way and users are instead given an error message when they submit. After signing up, users are not given a tour or any other indication on how to customize their homepage except for a small box at the top of the center column. Also, users are forced to return to the sign up form multiple times to sign up for different services, with no clear reason except to expose them to more advertising offers.
4. Supporting the userâ€™s limited memory
The original paper did note some problems in this regardâ€”after signing up once, the username and password was forgotten and a new account was created. My Lycos does have a â€œForgot your password?â€ link on the homepage when users are not signed in, which might help some users but it is clear some will miss this functionality altogether.
5. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
Some users will no doubt go through the site in depth, trying things out, looking for new tools and services, like the original paper. The original paper showed the site to be learnable in this way, but any users with a more casual approach will likely miss many of the features available because they are given no tour or overview.
6. Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
The original paper mentioned that many tasks were slowed by excessive download times. The default homepage weighs in at about 145 K, more than twice the size of competitors like Yahoo or Go2Net. Users are able to remove a most of the content boxes on the home page and trim that size down, but that means removing options and services that users might want conveniently located on the homepage.
7. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
Supporting userâ€™s memory is important, but will users return? Many of the tools provided are geared toward turning casual users into return usersâ€”building a stock portfolio or setting up a homepage takes some amount of effort and users are likely to return to it many times. The original paper mentioned that AOL users in particular will not find the site worth coming back to because many of the same tools and services are available on AOL. My Lycos is no doubt aware of that and is probably targeting users outside of AOL and similar services.
8. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
My Lycosâ€™s biggest problem in this category is not user errors, but server errors. Once or twice while completing the tasks below, Netscape returned â€œDocument contains no dataâ€ errors after a page had already loaded and the Email system was unavailable at times on October 14, 2003, returning a â€œThis URL has not been found on the serverâ€ error. The original paper noted some problems with items linked to the Lycos Teacherâ€™s Zone. Also, some standard error-recover features such as moving deleted mail to a trash folder are not available.
9. Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?
The original paper seemed content with the design, but many users will find the homepage in particular too busy, with too many objects competing for attention. This is due in part to the sheer number of options and services users are givenâ€”it would be impossible to fit the 12 default content boxes on the homepage without some clutter. My Lycos has no really dominant element on the page, though, and even headline or content box name text is small and easy to overlook. Lycos could get around some of these limitations by allowing users to place some content boxes on the homepage and others on pages further in, or to organize pages into â€œMy Lycos News Pageâ€ and â€œMy Lycos Entertainment Pageâ€ and similar categories.
Task 1: signing up
The homepage is very cluttered, dividing users attention in a number of directions. This makes it difficult to find anything quickly, and many users might scroll around the page, searching for a way to log in before finding the orange â€œSign Up for My Lycosâ€ headline below a large ad at the top of the center column. It should be noted that the size and placement of the ad varies from session to sessionâ€”sometimes the ad stretches across the top of the columns and the â€œSign Up for My Lycosâ€ headline is isolated in itâ€™s own gray box at the top of the center column. Lycos probably gets different rates for different ad sizes and placements, but if the homepage must sometimes include ads like in the first example, they really need to be set off from other actual content elementsâ€”many users will associate any text in the same box with the ad and ignore it completely.
Clicking the â€œFree! Sign Upâ€ button takes users to the Member Registration page. This form has the standard fields for username, password, etc., and also a number of checkboxes for â€œspecial offers.â€ Most of the offers are unchecked by default but two of the three â€œMy Lycos & Terra Lycos Network Offersâ€ are already checked, meaning un-attentive users will sign up for advertising they might not want.
Submitting the form should take the user to the next step in the process. If the user neglected to fill out any of the â€œPersonalize Your Experienceâ€ fields, however, they are taken back to the form with an error message telling them to fill out the empty fields. It would be nice to warn users that all fields are required, since many sites (including Go2Net) donâ€™t require all fields to be filled out. Also, email address is a required fieldâ€”if the user wants Lycos mail, what should they enter here? They havenâ€™t completed the signup process, and therefore donâ€™t have their address yet. Assuming all fields are filled out, the user may still encounter an error message if their chosen username has already been taken. Why does this error not show up along with the earlier missing information error?
Assuming all fields are filled and a unique username is picked, the user is taken to a congratulations page with a link to â€œGo To My Lycos.â€ Following the link leads the user right back to the homepage, but with some changesâ€”the content boxes, such as Weather, TV or At the Box Office, now contain information localized to the userâ€™s city. Content boxes can be moved, removed or edited right on the homepage with links in the titlebar of each box, but since this might not seem clear to first-time users there is a box in the top center column that states â€œUser: You are using 10 out of 37 content boxes. Add more content here. Remove this message.â€ Again, this sort of information should be emphasized more than it is. Clicking on that link brings users to a list of available content boxes with checkboxes next to them. At the bottom is a button â€œOn to Move Boxes,â€ which leads users to a page with a java applet that allows them to drag buttons for each content box and put them in different columns or reorder them. The Java applet allows Lycos to have a drag and drop interface, but it will require some users to download and install a plugin. Modifying the list is pretty clear this way, but still there is no explanation of how the boxes can be removed and edited right on the homepage. Users are likely to miss this feature because most of the time, object on a web page donâ€™t work like windows in Windows or MacOS, so thereâ€™s no expectation that they will.
Like Go2Net, Lycos separates their mail and customization accounts. Unlike Go2Net, Lycos at least doesnâ€™t confuse the signup process for the two, which is nice. Still, the only way to sign up for email is by clicking on the small â€œEmailâ€ link in the upper right hand corner of the screen, which is pretty easy to miss. Clicking that link and continuing to the â€œChoose Service Options for Lycos Mailâ€ presents users with options for free email or pay accounts with more storage and features. Continuing, users are presented with a form very similar to the customize account form. If they already have a customize account, most of the fields are already filled, including some â€œSpecial Offerâ€ checkboxes that the user has already declined. Submitting the form (assuming the user doesnâ€™t run into any of the problems noted above) leads to a Confirmation page with a link to activate the email account, which leads to the mail system and the userâ€™s inbox.
Task 2: setting up a portfolio
On the homepage the most likely looking place to set up a stock portfolio is the Portfolio content box. The box includes a listing of Dow, NASDAQ and other prices which is a quick visual cue. Clicking on â€œCreate New Portfolioâ€ leads users to yet another account sign up. At this point users might notice that the main reason they need to keep signing up and adding more information to their account is so Lycos can continue to make more â€œSpecial Offers,â€ again checking some that have already been unchecked. Assuming the user doesnâ€™t just give up, and submits the form again, they are taken to a blank form with fields for portfolio name, stock symbols, shares, price, and other info. There is a â€œLookup ticker symbol hereâ€ link, but the popup window it opens takes a strangely long period of time to load and looks misformatted. Stocks can be looked up here, but symbols must be copied and pasted back into the formâ€”it would be nice if users could click on something in the popup to add it to their portfolio. Once the user fills out and submits the form, they are taken to a main Portfolios page where they are able to add, edit or set a default portfolio.
Task 3: setting up a web page
Setting up a web page through My Lycos is a fairly difficult task because although the parent company Terra Lycos owns homepage builder/hosts Tripod.com and Angelfire.com, by default no connection is made between them and the tools at My Lycos. It is possible for users to find their way to Tripod, as in the original review, but it would be much easier for a user to simply type in â€œwww.tripod.comâ€ or do a web search and end up wit a different host altogether. If a user types in â€œset up webpageâ€ or â€œset up homepageâ€ and does a Lycos search, they will find Tripodâ€”but a number of competitors will come up higher on the page, including SiteRightNow.com, Webspawner.com, and Yahoo! Web Hosting.
Users can add the Homepage Manager content box, which does have a prominent link to â€œCreate your own Homepageâ€ that goes to Tripod. But how many users will notice this or remember to return to the Add/Remove Boxes page to enable the content box, then follow the link? Also, once users get to Tripod, they need to revisit the sign up form once again.
Task 4: Find information about a product
In the original review, the specific product was a book, probably either Measurement & Internal Audit by Andrew Fight or The Internal Auditing Handbook by K. H. Spencer Pickett, both published by Wiley. The user knew only the publisher and the â€œinternal auditâ€ part of the title. Like many users, the original reviewer simply typed â€œWiley, Internal Auditâ€ into the search box. The results of this search were rejected because 47,334 pages were returnedâ€”but the first result is the page for the Measurement & Internal Audit book on Wileyâ€™s site. This is a pretty good result considering how vague the search was, and that the user was doing a general web search and not looking through Lycos Shopping. And the tiny â€œFind “Wiley, Internal Audit” in: Shoppingâ€ link at the top of the results page does take the user (after a few links) to a page with prices and information on The Internal Auditing Handbook. Lycos does have a dedicated shopping section, and although searching for â€œWiley, Internal Auditâ€ in Books and Magazines there does not come up with any results, there are categories that the user could browse in order to find the book or ones similar. The main reason many users will not go this route is the shopping section is nowhere to be found on the homepage.
It is impossible to find precise results for all user searches, but Lycos is not doing themselves any favors by making their shopping section so hard to find. The shopping content box is not displayed by default to new users and registered users must choose to have it displayed. It is possible that Lycos has done studies of their users and found very few will ever shop from their site, but that seems unlikely when online sales reached $45.6 billion last year and 81 percent of adults Internet users have made a purchase online (Shop.org stats, 1). If this is to be a portal, where the user will start their day online, chances are theyâ€™ll be looking for a particular product or type of product.
Task 5: Configuring parental controls
This is another task that is possible, but many users will miss. Users will not find the parental controls on My Lycos by default. Even though there is a Lycos â€œSearch the webâ€ text box in the upper right hand corner of every page, there is no parental controls link nearby like on the Lycos homepage. If users happen to enable the Search content box, the parental controls link appears under the new text box, but if a user has already successfully performed a web search without that content box available, how likely are they to turn it on? It might be more logical to put it (or at least a link to it) under the settings link.
Following the link, users are taken to Lycos Searchguard, where they are able to sign up by providing another and password and then selecting filter settings. Why do users need one password for every other service, and a separate one for this one? Are there specific security concerns or is this just a matter of one service not talking to another? The settings here do affect web searches from both search boxes on My Lycos, but do not actually disable email even after â€œDisable access to Lycos Chat, Email, and Message Boardsâ€ is checked.
Task 6: Using Lycos Zone Cyber Station and Teachers Zone
These two areas are Terra Lycos sites, but do not seem to be integrated into My Lycos. Thereâ€™s no way to get to them directly from My Lycos, even when the Parenting content box is selected. This is unfortunate, because the Cyber Zone feature explored in the original review would seem just as useful to parents as Lycos Searchguard, if only they could find it. My Lycos has set up some fairly intuitive sections, but many very useful controls cannot be found in the most logical places.
Task 7: Using Reminders and My Links
My Lycosâ€™s calendar feature, Reminders, is fairly straightforward. Assuming the Reminders content box is enabled, users need only click the â€œAdd more reminders to your pageâ€ link and they are taken to a form with 20 places for events to remind them about and when to start reminding them. The system is easy to use, but not very robustâ€”thereâ€™s no way to set specific times or repeating reminders, so it would only be useful for a few birthdays and not scheduling.
The My Links feature is always available, located in the light blue navbar under the Lycos logo at the top of the page. Thereâ€™s a list of links (the defaults are Movie Clips, My Finance, Personals, and Flight Deals) and an Edit Links link. This is not the â€œMy Linksâ€ feature the original paper cited howeverâ€”here users can only pick from a list of preset choices. Users are able to add custom links via the My Website Links content box, and the process is straightforward and similar to the Reminders customization. But having two very similarly-named features is confusing.
Dumas, Joseph S., and Janice C. Redish. A Practical Guide to Usability Testing. Portland, OR: Intellect Books, 1999.
My Lycos. Terra Lycos. 14 Oct 2003. http://www.go2net.com/ (14 Oct 2003).
Newton, Michele. â€œUsability of my.lycos.com.â€ Paper for IAKM 61095-002 Usability Testing for the Web. 9 Oct 2003.
Nielsen, Jakob. â€œUsability 101: Fundamentals and Definition – What, Why, How.â€ Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. 25 Aug. 2003. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030825.html (5 Oct. 2003).
Nielsen//NetRatings. â€œUnited States: Top 10 Parent Companies.â€ Nielsen//NetRatings: The global standard for digital media measurement and analysis. 5 Oct 2003. http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/news.jsp?section=dat_to&country=us (14 Oct 2003).
â€œShop.org stats.â€ Shop.org. The online Group of the National Retail Federation. 2003. http://www.shop.org/learn/stats_usshop_general.html (12 Oct 2003).