With BSkyB publishing its Q1 results today, and Sky’s recent rap on the knuckles after wrongly criticising Virgin Media over its traffic management policies, now seems an appropriate time to put their respective websites to the user experience test.

Similar to my previous post comparing luxury travel sites, here I’ll take a look at the respective media giants’ customer-facing websites in terms of ease of use, functionality, availability of service and how easy is it to find the TV and broadband package you’re looking for.

Sky

Sky’s homepage is very much geared up for advertising its own programming via a large carousel. However, I’m a new customer and I want to subscribe to its service, so I’ll assume that can be found in the Sky Products drop down menu…

Right, so that’s an awful lot of options.

TV Packs takes you through to product pages showcasing the different channel packages Sky has to offer.

You’ll be forgiven for missing the price. It’s right there underneath Joanna Lumley.

You may also notice a little pull-tab annoyingly bobbing its head out of the left of the screen. Clicking on this reveals a collection of images showing five highlights of this particular channel package.

The pull-tab stops the carousel from rotating, it also pops out automatically if you scroll down the page past it. This is a jarring and unpleasant feature, plus its placement over the existing carousel makes the web page looks incredibly cluttered.

Clicking on Join Sky takes you through to the details of your bundle, which after reading for a few seconds, the dreaded “How Can I Help You?” pop-up appears without prompt.

Although Sky’s live chat has helped improve sales it’s an annoying feature when unprompted and should definitely be an option you choose yourself rather than having it forced upon you.

There’s also nowhere on the page where you can click to bring the live chat back up again. The Help & Support option just takes you through to a customer service page for existing customers.

I don’t just want Sky TV, I also want broadband. The ability to personalise my chosen TV bundle with Sky Broadband and Talk options is hidden beneath the fold, so it’s not immediately clear that I can do this from the current page.

Returning to the homepage, and clicking on the Sky Products drop-down menu reveals broadband options.

Clicking on Sky Broadband takes you to a product page, with similar problems as the TV product page, which then then takes you through to a product details page identical to the TV product details page, with no details about broadband above the fold.

I have to really want Sky if I’m going to keep trying. 

Returning to the homepage once again, I try a different dropdown menu, one that I hope makes things clearer. Clicking on Shop I’m presented with this…

 

I then click on My Sky…

I am overburdened with information and choice (choice paralysis). Sky is trying to cater for absolutely everybody with its options, but leaves you confused and likely to hit the back button.

In my experience many of these links will go to the same page. It’s a bit like going to a particularly cheap restaurant where you’re presented with a gigantic leather bound menu of thousands of dishes that end up all tasting the same. 

So once I’ve gone beyond the fold and realised the personalisation options are there I can finally make a purchase.

These options are clear and precise; which TV package do you want, do you want extra channels or higher spec equipment, and all prices are indicated clearly.

The Sky Broadband & Talk availability check, that opens in a pop-out, is fast and straightforward, with a simple postcode search if you don’t have an existing landline.

Happily this doesn’t fall into the postcode validation trap that other online retailers fall into when a user inputs a postcode without a space in the middle.

Sky’s purchase page is nice and clear, showing your potential savings and clearly stating how much you have to pay up front.

 

The next page, where you write your personal details, features this neat little piece of accessibility…

 

Handy perhaps if you don’t know what a semi-detached house is.

Checking for availability then only takes a few seconds, and then you’re taken to a set-up and payment screen.

I’m impressed with the clearly laid out page, especially the calendar where you can choose your installation date and time preference. (I’m also impressed they can install it so soon.)

To improve matters even further, suddenly there’s that handy live chat widget that disappeared earlier.

The total to pay today, with a standard card input, and the total monthly payment, which you can use a different payment method for if you wish, are both clearly labeled and defined.

Once you’re done you’re taken through to a single confirmation screen.

The process of purchasing a Sky subscription is far more straightforward than researching the various options available to a potential customer.

It’s a deceptively inconsistent user experience that relies on the persistence of the customer and their faith in the product to eventually get them through to the smooth and efficient checkout.

Virgin

Virgin Media’s homepage isn’t the all-singing, all-dancing, star-led experience that the Sky website strives to be. What Virgin Media has instead is a clear option along the top of the homepage that says Virgin Broadband, TV and Phone.

Congratulations Virgin Media, you already have a far more functional website than Sky

Clicking on the Broadband, TV & Phone tab takes you through to a page that immediately presents you with Virgin Media’s best offers on a carousel, featuring a real-time countdown to the end of the offer.

More importantly are the packages available, listed vertically and clearly defined by different colours. Clicking on the individual package takes you through to their respective product detail screens.

Here the details of each package are clearly laid out, and the price for each bundle is boldly defined.

Perhaps the text could be a little more dynamic, as it slightly disappears into the grey background.

Just above the fold is the phrase ‘Want to go faster’ which encourages you to scroll further down to options for improving broadband speed. This only just caught my attention.

Hidden even further down is a handy price comparison guide to other broadband/TV providers. It’s a strange choice to hide it all the way down there and not have a link from the homepage or header bar. If Virgin Media offer’s the best value, why not trumpet this?

Buy Now takes you through to two individual customer detail screens to find your address. (You can miss a space out of your postcode to your heart’s content).

And then it’s the order screen where… oh… it’s another live chat box where ‘Jonathan’ asks “how can I help you?”.  

I have started to loathe these now.

Another minor issue is the initial order details screen isn’t as clearly delineated as the Sky order details screen, which is a shame.

Also I’m not too sure about this pop-up…

Is it patronising or handy? I can’t quite decide.

Then upon entering the checkout, I uncover the largest problem of all.

Here there’s a 10 character limit to first name entry and 15 for last name. Particularly offensive if one is a Christopher and distinctly not a Chris. Very odd. 

Worse still, there’s a three detail limit to entering your date of birth. You can’t scroll further down than 3 March 1993. 

I’ve discovered this is a problem only on a Mac. On a PC you can access dates further than 3 March 1993, but there’s still a 10 or 15 character limit to your name. 

Again if you’re a Mac user, further down the page it’s impossible to say you’ve lived at your current address for longer than two years. Forcing you to input your previous address and basically lie about your length of address time, date of birth and even your own name to Virgin Media if you want to go any further.

Which is essentially what I’ve had to do in order to get to this screen…

It would have been good to be presented with a calendar showing all available dates, but instead you’re taken to a separate pop-up screen.

Eventually upon getting to the payment screen, there are no such character limits when filling in your bank details. No real shock there, as I’m sure the developers took pains to make sure this worked okay.

Once a quick credit check is completed, only lasting a couple of seconds, you’re taken through to a confirmation screen and that’s it.

In conclusion…

Sky TV’s website is unpleasant to navigate but an excellent experience when signing-up, once you’ve finally figured out which package is for you.

Virgin Media has a simple, functional website, that leads the customer quickly and efficiently through to purchase, and then suddenly makes a hash of things with poor function, cluttered design, multiple pop-ups, and a disgraceful prejudice towards Mac users.

Each company boasts approximately half a decent user experience. Virgin at the front, Sky at the back. Both companies could learn a lot from each other’s websites

To further stoke the rivalry here’s our guide to how easy it is to switch loyalties between Sky TV and Virgin Media.