Usability and Hosting Providers

I’m currently searching for a hosting provider. I have some hosting already in disparate places, so I’m in the market for a dedicated or semi-dedicated host. It should be my centralized computing home. However, I’m having a hard time, and am filled with dread at the prospect of a longer search. I’m currently waiting for technical support from one (who can’t seem to send me enough information for me to log in for the first time), so I think I’ll rant a bit about one of my favorite subjects: Usability. Is it just me or are these class of websites especially hard to use?

Choosing a Provider

Anyone besides me observe that hosting providers have notoriously bad websites? There are two extremes here that encompass the plurality of businesses.

Hosting Provider Websites Taxonomy

Flashy, whizbang sites
These sites typically have flash content on the page. This means I have to learn their funky controls. Sometimes this means I can’t use the page at all, because some of the computers I use don’t have flash installed (installing flash in Linux is a pain; I hate having to restart my browser to look at one site.) Sometimes this means the page layout looks weird… when flash is used, there are often assumptions made about resolution and window size that can drastically impact page layout. Some examples?

  • MediaTemple: Lots of flash. Site is unusable without flash installed. So much for interoperability…
  • Rackspace: A window pops up and a sales person attempts to sell you stuff. “uh… just browsing, thanks.”
  • DreamHost: This one has scrolling on the page and has an extreme 1 + 1 = 3 effect.
Really Crappy Looking Sites
These are the ones that look like they were done in frontpage. They typically contain odd color choices, like black backgrounds with grey text.
TODO: list examples

Just the Facts

Then, assuming you find a site that isn’t an eyesore, you need to assess the offerings available. This is where many sites get into a lot of trouble. A perfect exemplar is ev1. They ask you which plan you’d like to look at. How am I supposed to know what plan I want to look at? I just want to see a list of prices and specs so I can compare. When a claim like “affordable, high quality hosting” is made, I want to answer “Compared to WHAT? What is the difference between Value and ExtremeValue anyway? What is woodridge? Don’t make me learn your marketing. Lots of sites are like this, not just ev1. However, ev1 lost my business because of this. The website was just too hard to use, and there are too many choices to justify me spending more time figuring out how to use their site.

On the Inside

Once you’ve chosen a provider, and paid all setup costs, the first thing to do is log in for the first time. I just recieved an email that explains how to log in. The information provided doesn’t work. I’m no louse in this area; I’ve used many many linux systems, and even built them from scratch. I can’t log in. I’ve used every resource and trick up my sleeve. What to do? Contact customer support.

Customer Support

I used to think customer support and related complains were for the weak-hearted; those who could not figure things out for themselves. I was wrong. Customer support is important. It’s the main way customers interact with the company.

Many companies make it hard to use their customer support. MediaTemple makes you jump through several hoops of choosing a general category, and then even a specific topic area before allowing you to write a word. Of course, you have no idea which topic areas are relevant to your reply, or even which topic areas are behind each general category. This leads to several guesses and back and forth browsing, when really I just wanted to send them a simple message. This also precludes certain types of messages they desparately need to hear. There’s no category and topic combination for “Your customer support system is hard to use” types of messages…

Waiting for a response from customer support is nervewracking. After a few tickets, you learn which techs are there collecting money for the hours they sit doing nothing, and which ones actually solve problems. Many times, as in the current situation where I can’t log in, the tech is completely unhelpful. For example, I complained that I can’t log in. The response from customer support was to resend the original mail unmodified, saying the information was correct. This is unhelpful. It didn’t address the questions I asked, and is completely irrelevant. My complaint wasn’t that the information was incorrect, it was that the information provided doesn’t work! Sending the original email was of no help. I already demonstrated by virtue of quoting from it that I already had full access to that information. These kinds of operators also take the liberty to be helpful and close your ticket for you.

The only thing to do, I suppose, is respond with a clear set of questions, explaining again why you need support. So much for “the customer is always right.” Also as the last item enumerated, make sure to ask for the apropriate way to escalate this request. Cross your fingers to hope you get a different tech. I sometimes explain that sending information I already had access to doesn’t help, and that correctness is irrelevant to the question of “does it work?”.

Administering Your Account

I’ve never seen an easy to use admin system. Basic things such as accessing your account’s billing history are typically a nightmare, from a usability perspective. Sometimes these systems use different passwords, increasing the burden to use their service. The categories provided seem arbitrary, and it’s unclear what information lies behind each category. Often these systems point you to other systems for different bits of functionality. MediaTemple is particularly bad at this. In order to access phpmyadmin, you must go to their website. Log in. Somehow select the account administration interface (this is buried and not immediately available even though you logged in). This opens a new window for some reason. From here, you have to select from among very similar categories and magically choose the right button. When you select the correct button, it opens in a frameset within the current site, meaning you have very little room to use the appication you actually intended. The whole process typically takes me about 50 seconds. That’s about 42 seconds too long. I’ve now probably forgotten what I had in mind.

Enough is Enough

I could go on, but I won’t. I’m so frustrated and fed up with all the bad interfaces out there. I’d be willing to pay a bit extra for a service that had certified usability with decent customer service. Seriously.

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