Web Informant #411, 24 May 2005: You'll have the duck




I have been spending time on two different Web sites this week, and they couldn't be more different. They couldn't be further apart in terms of their approach to usability, utility, and usefulness, which is why they make great fodder for this column.


The two sites are chicagocrime.org and arclightcinemas.com. The former is a creation of Web programmer Adrian Holovaty and Web designer Wilson Miner. It shows you crime statistics for the city of Chicago in a beautiful visual interface, and allows anyone to slice and dice the data in such a way as to show you block by block where various crimes occurred. It is a marvel in efficiency, usability, and style. I was immediately drawn into the site and spent much time there, even though I have never lived in Chicago and don't really know much about the city's neighborhoods. But after looking at the crime stats, I can tell you there are places that I would prefer and places that I would avoid.


The cinema site is a creation of numerous people and the only place you can go on the Web to purchase tickets for that particular theater chain. They own what is perhaps the best theater in Los Angeles to see the next Star Wars movie, what used to be called the Cinerama Dome and is now called the ArcLight Dome. Unfortunately, where the chicagocrime site excels is where this site falls down miserably. I probably would have seen the movie by now if I hadn't spent the better part of several hours navigating around its confusing series of screens and menus. Unfortunately, the force wasn't with me and the dark side of bad design and bad programming had taken over the ArcLight.


The chicagocrime site becomes even more of a lesson in good site design when you compare it with the original site that the Chicago Police put together when they decided to release their crime stats to the Internet. The police department's Web site is ugly, bureaucratic, confusing, and not very interesting, even though it uses the same data set that Holovaty's site has. The difference is all in the presentation, and the ability for the visitor to customize the display to show the particular corner of the database that is of interest.


The reason for the difference is because Holovaty has scripted the Chicago Police data and understood how people read police blotters in their local newspapers.


He updates his site once a day with the latest arrest records, then geocodes them and shows you where they happened. He combines the crime data with maps from Google and does it all so well that you are drawn into the site to learn more about the Chicago neighborhoods and how they differ in terms of where people are arrested.


You can search by street, by police district, by date and type of crime, and just when you thought you had your fill of all these searches, he nicely presents an RSS feed that you can subscribe to and keep track of your favorite crimes or locations or whatnot. If only other sites had this kind of flexibility (if only Tom's had half of this flexibility)!


(As a side note, the police department site is hard coded to this IP address: -- I find that very curious indeed. There are all sorts of issues for Web designers with hard coding IP addresses that I won't even attempt to get into here, including dealing with the eventuality of changing it and how that breaks your databases and code.)


Back to the ArcLight, where I am still trying to purchase tickets and where just creating that site should be a crime in and of itself. Before you can buy tickets, you first have to become a member. It is easy, it is free, and it is also a pain in the neck. My first attempt didn't work, maybe because the site was so busy with the Jedi faithful trying to get their tickets. My ninth attempt allowed me to obtain a member ID, but not until I parted with lots of personal information, or what this site thought was my personal information. I left most of the fields blank, sorry guys, but you don't need to know my household income if I am just buying movie tickets. (I always think of that scene with Steve Martin trying to get a dinner reservation in LA Story and Patrick Stewart telling him, "you'll have the duck.") It does require you to provide a birth date, so we'll just enter my default, January 1. Easy to remember, and easy to type in.


Okay, so I am finally a member. Now I can buy my tickets, but no, when I click on the very nice graphic of the theater's seat layout, the site returns with "internal error, please try again later."


Nice of them to say please, but really, what are we talking about here? Is the queue of rabid Wookies too long outside the theater so they can't sell me tickets? Is the commerce server down because of other problems? Are they sold out on that particular date? (As a side note, only in LA: the fans actually lined up outside another theater in Hollywood, a theater that they found WASN'T playing the movie. But still they camped out at this other location. When it came time for the screening to start, they paraded down Hollywood Blvd. to the right place. As far as I know, this is the only time in recent recorded history that people actually have walked to a movie in the entire LA basin.)


Two Web sites, two complete different approaches. Lots of lessons to be learned here. And maybe I will have the duck, the next time I am in that fancy restaurant. But it will be because I, not the chef, choose it.


David Strom


Tom's Guides Publishing

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Westlake Village, CA 91362

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