Following in the footsteps of AutoTrader, automotive publisher What Car? has just released a smartphone-optimised mobile site.
I tried out the new the site, which can be found at m.whatcar.com, on an iPhone, and found that the user experience could be improved...
The site looks good, if a bit cluttered, with the search box dominating the homepage. For users of touch screen phones, the links could be made easier to click on.
Some are quite close together, and it's easy to select the wrong link, something which can become frustrating for users after a while.
Search and navigation
Since the site is designed for users on the move, the reviews and used car prices are likely to be the most popular features of the site.
Therefore, placing the search box in a prominent position makes sense, though the fact that you can only search for make, not model from the drop-down makes things more difficult for users.
It means that, when users get the search results, there is still plenty of work to be done to find the review you want.
What Car? should learn from how rival site Auto Trader organises its homepage and search box and provides options for users to narrow their searches:
So, for Volkswagen, the results for new car reviews are split over three pages, which means more clicks and more time waiting for page loads if the car review you want is on page three.
Once you reach the reviews, they are well written and well presented, and are a useful resource for car buyers. The first page provides a summary of the review, with pros and cons, average reader review rating, and scores for a variety of categories, handling, safety, etc.
Classifieds and valuations
A common problem through the site is the lack of shortcuts and options to sort and filter searches, all of which means more effort on the part of the user.
For example, I can search for VW Golf by postcode, price range and distance, but that's it. There is no way to further narrow the search, by fuel type, engine size, keyword etc.
This means there are hundreds of results to look through with only the option of sorting by price:
The car valuation section, which should be a very useful resource for car buyers on the move, is let down by terrible usability.
Instead of providing various boxes and drop-downs users to select make, model, year etc, this process has been split over five separate steps.
First, I have to select the make of the car and click on calculate:
When the page reloads, I can see a drop-down which allows me to select the model of Alfa I want a valuation for. Then I need to reload the page to select the version (1.9 diesel etc), and again for the year:
By not allowing users to select all of these options on the one page from the beginning, the process takes up much more time than it needs to, and will be infuriating for users.
What Car? needs to look at the various search and navigational features on this site and simplify them to allow users to find the results they want with the minimum of page loading time. At the moment, it is unnecessarily difficult.
Spreading articles over multiple pages is poor from a user experience perspective on any website, but for mobile users it's even worse, as every new page means even more loading time on a 3G connection.
For example, in the case of this article discussing the relative merits of buying petrol or diesel cars, which is useful for the car buyer, the article is split over six pages when it could easily be fitted into a couple of pages.
To make matters worse, the links to the different sections of the article aren't visible enough. While you would expect to see the link to the next section at the bottom of the text of each article, links to the various sections are placed at the foot of the page, underneath links to latest news.
All this means more loading time and therefore more irritation for the user.
The What Car? mobile site has some useful features for car buyers, and since the desktop site receives 50,000 mobile visits per month, it makes perfect sense.
However, I get the impression that the user experience of the mobile visitor hasn't been considered enough in the design of this site.
This is especially true when searching for reviews, valuations and used cars on the site. Every new page load on a mobile website means more loading time, and potentially more frustration for the user, so processes need to be streamlined wherever possible.
This is potentially a very useful resource for car buyers on the move, but at the moment the poor usability in some areas lets it down.